[Theatre Review] Well-Pitched Souvenir

Souvenir brings out the tender friendship between Florence Foster Jenkins and Cosmé McMoon.

Souvenir
Sing’theatre
25 September 2018
KC Arts Centre—Home of the SRT
19–29 September 2018

Leigh McDonald’s singing is a torturous mixture of a rusty kettle whistling; frogs being forced to croak as they are placed on a hot pan; and a screeching banshee on speed.

But no one is complaining because she is playing self-styled opera star, Florence Foster Jenkins in Sing’theatre’s latest production, Souvenir.

In this two-hander written by Stephen Temperley and directed by Samantha Scott-Blackhall, there is less focus on Jenkins’s infamous croaking, but more on the friendship between Jenkins and her piano accompanist, Cosmé McMoon (Hossan Leong).

McMoon recounts his time with her—from the first meeting all the way till her death shortly after her concert at the Carnegie Hall, which was packed to the rafters.  He also struggles with how best to deal with her; does he tell her the truth or prevent her blissful bubble from bursting?

What starts out as an expedient relationship—McMoon falling behind on his rent—soon develops into a bosom friendship.

Appearances can certainly be deceiving. Despite the simple set and staging (piano, chair, tables, three layers of satin curtains, light change to differentiate the scene and McMoon’s internal monologue), the whole show can easily crumble if the friendship between the two characters are not established gradually but surely.

I am happy to report that by the end of the show, we are cheering for Jenkins and McMoon. This is not out of derisive amusement, but of genuine affection.

McDonald, while clearly having fun on stage, is careful not to portray Jenkins as some crazy old bat. She has a balance of child-like innocence with a sort of confidence that is not merely delusional, but it also comes from her wealth and status.

This proves to be an irresistible mix as we see her swaying to her own recording with her palms facing outwards at shoulder level at one moment, while at another, she assures McMoon that she is going to secure his future.

But where McDonald really shows her acting chops is when Jenkins is hurt on two occasions—when McMoon flares up at her, and when she realises the audience is laughing at her. It is interesting to see how she and Leong navigate the gamut of emotions and negotiates a reconciliation for both characters.

Speaking of Leong, despite struggling to maintain his accent, he is a joy to watch. His constant reactions to Jenkins are pitched perfectly. From the widening of the eyes to gasping for air, or his legs buckling a little on encountering her delusions of grandeur, Leong is a brilliant counterpoint to McDonald. Apart from sending the audience roaring with laughter, the subtle changes of his reactions over time also allows one to see the blossoming of an endearing relationship.

That said, it must be noted that McDonald gets too carried away with being out of tune, especially during the scene of the Carnegie Hall concert. Based on the actual recordings, those unfamiliar with the song can roughly make out the original tune. However, McDonald’s renditions comprise a cacophony of sounds.

Yet, Sing’theatre has undeniably given us a souvenir that is not only entertaining and comforting, but it also sends us out with our hearts singing.

Other Reviews

“Souvenir by Sing’theatre: Play about off-key singer hits right notes” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life! 

“Review: Souvenir by Sing’theatre” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

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[Theatre Review] Easy, Tiger!

Tiger of Malaya is a self-reflexive look at historical framings, identities, and representations.

Tiger of Malaya
Teater Ekamatra
19 September 2018
Drama Centre Black Box
12–23 September 2018

Meta-theatricality has often been used as a device to show the contingency of representation, or a particular issue being explored. But very few productions actually look at the significance of the particular actor involved in the process of representation, much less use theatre to critique a film.

This is where Alfian Sa’at’s latest play is ambitious in its complexity. Yet, director Mohd Fared Jainal, with guidance from Shawn Chua (dramaturg and translator), manages to pull all the strands together in an expansive tapestry, while being unafraid to show the stitching required to do so.

Through critiquing the 1943 Japanese propaganda film, Marai No Tora (Tiger of Malaya), Alfian Sa’at not only teases out how one should look at history, but the significance of the people—taking into account various aspects of their background—involved in the actual historical moment, as well as the retelling of it.

The play revolves around a group of actors (three local and two Japanese) trying to recreate the film which is a glorification of Tani Yutaka—a Japanese who has lived in Malaya before the invasion, but eventually becomes a spy for Japan. His suffering under the British-led system and eventual sacrifice for the Japanese cause is portrayed as a glorification of Japan’s purpose in WWII.

Through this re-creation, the actors balance between a faithful re-creation versus adding one’s commentary, an inevitability when one departs from the original. Such negotiations bring various issues of identity, historical framing, and stereotypes come to the fore.

When the characters suggest a change or simply react to the original, one is made aware of their background and identity, and we get to see how the changes play out. Even things such as how a local character relate to the Japanese character would hit a nerve despite one being aware of the context of the original film. On a couple of occasions, when a character suggested a switch in casting, I found myself eagerly anticipating that switch just to see how different the scene would feel.

Theatre being a safe space to rehearse identities and social dynamics is a terrible cliché that has been intoned to death. However, this is the first time that I truly experienced it in action.

Additionally, I became increasingly sensitive to the reactions of my fellow audience members as their reactions are part of the exploration of relooking at history. For example, the audience was more impressed by the Japanese actors (Yuya Tanaka and Rei Kitagawa) delivering lines in Malay with a believable intonation as opposed to the local actors (Farez Najid, Siti Khalijah Zainal, and Rei Poh) saying their lines in Japanese.

This sparked several questions: what pre-conceived notions about the Japanese did the audience have? Is this a matter of being more familiar with the capabilities of our local actors, hence the disparity in reaction? Or could it be that Japanese culture and its products have a wider circulation, making a non-Japanese speaking the language decently less surprising than a Japanese speaking Malay?  

To top it all off, the production avoids being too caught up with its own devices, as it plays with varying levels of self-reflexivity. Just as the audience gets comfortable with the play-within-a-play set-up, the fourth wall is broken as if to remind them that they are complicit in the re-creation.

This is best exemplified when Farez Najid as Adnan declaims various academic treatises on reverse racism being impossible due to extant power dynamics or about the colonial gaze, he points his Japanese compatriots to the Japanese surtitles on the screen.

Alfian also jibes at the local theatre industry by raising stereotypes of Malay theatre and Chinese theatre, as well as a reference to Ong Keng Sen’s brand of intercultural theatre, where characters speak in different languages to each other, but they somehow understand each other. This is not merely a cheap trick to elicit laughter from industry insiders, but a subtle reminder that the representations we are watching are also tied to theatrical genres and conventions. This rebukes the idea of every play or actor starting from a blank canvas and is slowly crafted to tell a story.

Paired with a stellar cast which is versatile, and has a keen sense of comic timing, one not only leaves the show being thoroughly entertained, but also buzzing with a healthy dose of scepticism about how things are represented to us.

Despite how several productions market themselves, it is very rare to find one that truly pushes the envelope. I believe a case can be made for this one.  

Other Reviews

“Teater Ekamatra’s Tiger Of Malaya presents perils of oversimplifying history” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life! 

“’Tiger of Malaya’: The Body Remembers What the Archive Cannot” by Corrie Tan, ArtsEquator

“Theatre review: Tiger of Malaya’s revisionist view of a WWII film balances comedic satire with historical heft” by Aravin Sandran, Buro 24/7 Singapore

“Review: Tiger of Malaya by Teater Ekamatra” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

[Dance Review] Bharatanatyam and Thai Classical Dance Take Flight

Bharatanatyam and Thai classical dance truly intertwine in this production laden with significance. 

Photo: Vilvam Ramu

Manohra
Bhaskar’s Arts Academy and independent Thai artistes
9 September 2018
Esplanade Theatre Studio
8–9 September 2018

Manohra, a mythical Kinnari (bird-human creature), who was chanced upon by a hunter; captured and sold to a prince; became a princess; was asked by the king to sacrifice herself while the prince was at war, but escaped; and wooed back to the palace by the prince is certainly an epic tale.

But not many would know that the transmission of the tale matches the grandeur of the plot.

The tale is one of many Jakata tales, which form part of the Buddhist literature that is native to India. It travelled to Thailand and soon became an iconic dance-drama. A chance encounter of the tale in 1990 inspired Mrs Santha Bhaskar, artistic director of BAA, to interpret it through bharatanatyam and make it a mainstay of BAA’s repertoire, thus returning it to Indian culture through dance.

It is in this context that Manohra has truly come full circle in this third iteration, as we see bharatanatyam and Thai classical dance coming together to tell the story.

It is a partnership in all senses of the word as Mrs Bhaskar’s choreography intertwines both art forms, rather than allowing it to merely co-exist.

This is clearly seen in the first half of Kinnari dance with certain hand gestures, the signature cocked leg, and shuffling of feet before transiting into the second half, which sees more rigorous movements and footwork. While the dancers (Chayanee Sunthonmalai, Davinya Ramathas, Malini Bhaskar, Montakarn Roikaew, Priyadarshini Nagarajah, and Sarenniya Ramathas) are clearly more comfortable in their respective art forms, all of them dance beautifully and regally among plumes of smoke. 

The Mythical Kinnaris. (Photo: Tan Ngiap Heng / Courtesy of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy)

Another thing that stands out about this interpretation is the space given to Manohra’s thoughts and feelings. This augurs well with the expressiveness of Bharatanatyam in terms of movements and facial expressions. Shruthilaya Ramachandran, as Manohra, steps up to the plate admirably as she is able to convey the depth of emotion needed without making it a sob story. Set against Prince Sudhana’s (Puwapon Pinyolapkasam) subtler movements, it is clear that Manohra drives the plot.

Pinyolapkasam is defined by stillness with an active presence. And in it lies an excruciating exactitude in the execution of his movements. His fingers are constantly arched backwards, and every step is slowly placed on the ground, activating every bit of muscle in his feet.

Despite the movements being gentler in nature, his virtuosity shines through in quicker sequences such as when the prince is being put to the test of identifying Manohra among her Kinnari sisters in order to bring her back to the palace. He has to pulse his body and execute small steps to a rather quick tempo, while maintaining the stillness in the carriage of his upper body, and exuding an overall sense of grace and style. Like a thrilling illusion, one cannot stop wondering about the technique behind what one sees.   

Shruthilaya Ramachandran (left) as Manohra and Puwapon Pinyolapkasam (right) as Prince Sudhana (Photo: Tan Ngiap Heng / Courtesy of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy)

The other principal characters do not pale in comparison. Sarinprapa Bhutrachinda, is serpentine and flexible as Spirit of Doom; Nishalini Lakchimanathas indulges in moustache-twirling villainy as the cunning minister who advises the king to get rid of Manohra; and the energetic Bala Saravanan Loganathan who plays the hunter and King Adityavamasa to equal aplomb.

As if there aren’t enough to take in, contemporary choreography, possibly by Malini Bhaskar and Pallavi Sharma (as they are cited as having provided additional choreography), is performed by an ensemble of younger dancers who represent the obstacles that the prince has to overcome. On the surface, bodies on the floor shooting up at different times into a sort of a crunch may seem like an aberration when it is set against classical Asian music. But for some reason, it works and it is a testament to the innovative streak of BAA.

Speaking of music, the composition by Ghanavenothan Retnam, in close collaboration with Dr Anant Narkkong, mirrors the dance. Both classical Indian and Thai music have their solo moments, but it is when they come together that something exciting happens.

The percussion of the tabla (played by Hem Kumar) and mridangam (played by S Harikrishnan) provide the heartbeat while the ranat (Thai wooden xylophone played by Tossaporn Tassana) provides a snappy and cheery lilt, which harmonises with the veena (played by TK Arun), violin (played by TV Sajith), flute (played by Ghanavenothan Retnam), and vocals (Ampili Pillai and Arasakumari Nagaradjane). Other featured instruments include the Saw Duang and Klong Tuk (played by Dr Anant Narkkong).

This culminates in a ritualistic but jovial music as Prince Sudhana dances with the Kinnaris in order to identify who amongst them is Manohra.

Another highlight sees the inclusion of lyrics and vocalisation that almost sounds like a rap in Tamil and Thai to introduce the cunning minister.     

While there is a wonderful balance in the movement and musical vocabularies, the same cannot be said of the story-telling. Certain key dramatic moments are not given enough emphasis. It is tough to tell when Manohra actually falls in love with the prince as she goes from being hesitant and unwilling to suddenly smiling and striking a pose with him.

Additionally, the scene of the court dance and the subsequent escape is so bare—only the king, his minister, and Manohra are present—that it feels as if Manohra is playing a prank, rather than escaping from her impending doom. It is also unclear that she is asked to sacrifice herself in order to avert disaster befalling on the kingdom.

In contrast, the scene with hunter hunting for food before falling asleep, while wonderfully performed, goes on a little too long.

That said, one cannot underestimate how this iteration of Manohra is laden with so much significance due to the origins and transmission of the tale. One hopes that it can travel to Thailand to see how the locals take to it.

While Manohra chooses to return to the palace, Bharatanatyam and Thai classical dance have certainly taken flight in this production.

Dr Anant Narkkong on the Significance of Manohra

In the final interview of this series, Isaac Tan speaks to Dr Anant Narkkong, an ethnomusicologist from Thailand, on the significance of Manohra, and the collaborative process with Bhaskar’s Arts Academy. 

Dr Anant Narkkong (standing row: second from right) and composer Ghanavenothan Retnam (standing row: second from left), with musicians involved in Manohra. (Photo: Tan Ngiap Heng / Courtesy of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy)

What is the significance of the tale of Manohra as well as the dance drama to Thai culture?

The Jataka tale, Manohra, holds a very important place in Thai culture for both royal and folk arts. In the royal court, there was a position of royal playwright for a genre of theatre called Lakhon Nok  between the 16th-18th century (known as the Ayutthaya period). There were many forms of visual arts created around the story of Kinnaree/Manohra too, as seen by the sculptures and paintings of Kinnaree that decorate many famous temples and royal palaces.

The story of Manohra is a firm favourite within the Lakhon Nok canon. The theatrical elements of music and dance always win the hearts of audiences. The role of the female heroine, Manohra, in Thai Lakhon Nok is very important, and comparable to other male lead roles in other Lakhon stories.

In folk arts, especially in the Southern part of Thailand, Manohra, or in short “Nora”, has ritualistic significance such as a shaman in trance, dressed in human-bird (kinnaree) costume, singing and dancing to music and a particular rhythm. Southern Thai people also believe in the magical powers of Manohra. Somehow the male Nora/Kinnaree has a higher status than the female one, and has gained much respect from their society. I should also mention that there are  versions of Manohra in the Northeast Isaan and North Lanna regions. The performance elements differ from one place to another.

In modern Thai  or urban culture, we can still find Manohra depicted in many PR materials, advertisements, tourist spots, hotels, shopping plazas, fashion, and so on.

As an ethnomusicologist, do you see any similarities between music for Bharatanatyam and Thai classical dance? Did you work closely with composer Ghanavenothan Retnam on the music?

So much of the dance and musical relationship between India and Thailand can be seen through this process of collaboration. We share many similarities between our dance vocabularies: gestures, movements, rhythm, melody, emotions, and aesthetics. This also proves the long history of Indian culture that has existed in Southeast Asia, and how Thai artists in the past have adapted Indian  elements, as well as from other cultures, into our unique set of art forms.

I worked closely with Ghanavenothan Retnam in the process of music making, and with our dear Mrs Bhaskar in the choreography. I have learnt a lot from them and from their wonderful artists. It is a new experience to be able to  understand the beauty of Bharatanatyam and Raga-Tala, It was a real pleasure to share my knowledge and the ideas from my Thai artists with the Singapore team.

Has this collaboration made you look at the tale in a new way? 

It is a wonderful experience from an artistic and humanistic points of view. The arts always have a special impact on our hearts. In my earlier works I have reinterpreted the story and the destiny of Manohra by incorporating socio-political views such as human rights, feminism, and sex abuse. I have even made my own version of Manohra which did not follow the original storyline and it did not have a happy ending!

However, when we relearn the significance of Manohra through this particular production, it is a big inspiration and it motivates us to continue developing.

We—be it Singaporean, Thai, Kinnaree, or human—are born with differences in terms of ethnicity, politics, economics, language, religion, beliefs, environment, etc. But we can share and can live together. I wish the audiences of Singapore can find their inspiration from the love between Prince Sudhana and Princess Manohra in this regard.

Manohra runs from 8–9 September 2018 at Esplanade Theatre Studio. Tickets from Bhaskar’s Arts Academy.

Other Interviews from this Series: 

Mrs Santha Bhaskar on Manohra — A Singapore-Thailand Collaboration

Shruthilaya Ramachandran on Playing Manohra