[Theatre Review] Reinterpreting the Dust of Dead Men

Cherilyn Woo reimagines Faust by putting humanity front and centre.

Photo: Crispian Chan

Faust/Us
Nine Years Theatre
24 March 2019, 3 p.m.
Drama Centre Black Box
21‒24 March 2019

Stage a conflict between God and Mephistopheles within a two-storey wooden structure? Recast Faust as a young woman? Rewrite the second part of Faust?

Nine Years Theatre (NYT) new associate director Cherilyn Woo, has achieved all that and more in Faust/Us, the company’s Mandarin adaptation of Faust.

This production marks a couple of firsts for the company: the first show that isn’t directed by Nelson Chia, and the first production in which a part of the plot is completely rewritten.

Woo turns the cautionary tale of man’s greed into a humanistic piece that ennobles the human struggle.

The wager between God (Hang Qian Chou) and Mephistopheles (Timothy Wan) is no longer a symbol of sin and redemption, but a childish and selfish bet at the expense of humanity. Faust is not a crazed man, but Jo Faust (Mia Chee), a woman who signs a pact with Mephistopheles after being bogged down by ennui. She does not fall in love with Grett (Neo Hai Bin) out of lust, but out of admiration of his writing. At the show’s climax, Faust does not give in to one side or the other, but proceeds with the pact on her own terms.

This bold reimagination by Woo is arguably more in line with the Enlightenment ideals than Goethe’s version.

While Faust/Us may not have ensemble scenes that have become a signature of NYT’s productions, Woo does tap into the ensemble training that the actors go through with occasional synchronised movements, and having Grett glide across the space as God tries to convince Faust to come to his side.

Mia Chee balances between Faust’s ambition and her emotional vulnerability wonderfully, imbuing the titular character with more complexity.

Timothy Wan’s Mephistopheles is quick-witted with a sharp tongue to match. Wan plays off Chee very well, charming her every step of the way. It is easy to see why anyone would root for the devil for most of the show.

Neo Hai Bin endears himself to the audience with his earnest portrayal of the fruit seller, while sending students giggling when Grett and Faust are in the first blushes of love.

Hang Qian Chou does not leave much of an impression as God, but elicits sympathy as Wagner, Faust’s faithful friend.

It is difficult to stage a spectacle of cosmic proportions in such a small space. But lighting designer Adrian Tan and sound designer Zai Tang makes do by signalling a chance of space with coloured lights strategically fixed on to the set (designed by Petrina Dawn Tan) or a layered soundscape.

The creative team must be commended for managing to create a foreboding atmosphere when Mephistopheles suddenly appears without resorting to the age-old trick of smoke machines.

When she first appears, Faust laments that all human achievement will turn to dust eventually, and we are merely piling dust on layers of dust.

Woo responds by clearing away centuries of dust and allowing us to view this tale afresh, while offering a glimmer of hope to the seemingly Sisyphean struggle that is life.

Other Reviews

“Theatre review: FAUST/US by Nine Years Theatre is fiendishly good” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life! 

“She Creates: Nine Years Theatre’s ‘FAUST/US 浮世/德'” by Daniel Teo, Arts Equator

“The Spectacular Mundane in Faust/Us by Teo Xiao Ting, Centre 42 Citizens’ Review

“Review: FAUST/US (浮世/德) by Nine Years Theatre” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

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[Theatre Review] Tussling Between Advocacy and Poetry

Goddesses of Words—Sarojini Naidu raises important issues, but can’t quite find its feet.

Goddesses of Words—Sarojini Naidu
Grace Kalaiselvi
23 March 2019, 8 p.m.
Play Den, Arts House
21‒24 March 2019

 Goddesses of Words—Sarojini Naidu by playwright and director Grace Kalaiselvi hits a snag quite early on.

In an early scene, we are told sexual assault includes lewd comments and jokes. Shouldn’t that be classified under sexual harassment? Shouldn’t the differences between both terms matter?

Initially conceived to explore works by Indian female poets writing in English before evolving into one about sexual assault, the work finds itself caught between advocacy and poetry, rather than combining both aspects in a cohesive whole.

Its advocacy efforts consist of preachy scenes and skits such as telling us how we are complicit in “rape culture” with our words; that there is no clothing that is rape-proof; and not forcing others to eat briyani as an analogy about consent.

While the whole spectacle is fun and tongue-in-cheek, one wonders who it is meant for. In one segment, the audience has to indicate whether certain statements are appropriate through holding up the programme booklets, which has a red background on the front and green on the back. However, the statements are so ludicrously inappropriate that one just holds up the red background all the way and tune out.

As well-meaning as those segments are, it really is an exercise in preaching to the choir. Malicious abusers are without scruples, and will not recant if they were to watch this. But for the majority of us, who may say something insensitive unknowingly, or misread signals in the heat of the moment, the show is too simplistic and does not address these issues.

In fact, I found the post-show dialogue to be more enlightening and nuanced. But a show should stand on its own rather than be a prelude for the post-show dialogue.

As for the poetry, Grace and her cast (Pramila Krishnasamy, Mumtaz Maricar, and Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai) made a judicious choice in selecting the poems of Sarojini Naidu. Through movement sequences; drawings; and turning the verses into song, these segments are evocative and poignant. This is complemented by the haunting flute playing by Raghavendran Rajasekaran.

While the poems are not about sexual assault, the images of struggle and hurt makes it seem as if the poet is reaching across the ages to tell the women that she understands what they are going through.

To top it all off, the performers then perform monologues detailing actual stories of assault, including their own. The deliveries of the monologues are relatively cautious, as if they are too painful for the actors to delve into. This is a wasted opportunity as the stories are not told to its full potential.

That said, one cannot deny the effect the show has on the audience. A few audience members walked up to the performers to hug them, and some can be seen crying.

While one hopes that the show gives those affected a certain sense of consolation, the dramaturgical and artistic merits of the show must be assessed independently of the audience’s reaction in this case.

Other Reviews

“Review: Goddesses of Words – Sarojini Naidu by Grace Kalaiselvi” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

[Theatre Review] Awkward Company

Pangdemonium’s Late Company unearths uncomfortable truths about cyber-bullying.

Late Company
Pangdemonium!
22 February 2019
Victoria Theatre
22 February‒10 March 2019

“It takes a village…” It is rare for a play’s bigoted character to utter something which sends the whole audience recoiling in horror, while bearing a kernel of truth.

For Jordan Tannahill’s Late Company, it is Bill, whose son, Curtis, was one of many who bullied Joel online because of his sexuality. This results in Joel’s suicide.

Bill (Adrian Pang) may have uttered those words to selfishly protect his son (Xander Pang) from the perceived siege by Joel’s parents, Debora (Janice Koh) and Michael (Edward Choy).

But if we could put aside our knee-jerk reactions of yelling “victim-blaming” or “toxic masculinity”, as if they were incantations to cast out the demon of bigotry, is it just a simple equation of Curtis’s cyber-bullying leading to Joel’s suicide?

Set over the course of dinner hosted by Debora and Michael in the hopes of seeking closure with Bill, his wife Tamara (Karen Tan), and Curtis, Late Company brilliantly fleshes out an awkward encounter that is true-to-life, while raising pertinent questions, some of which are barely heard in discourses about cyber-bullying and suicides of LGBT teens.

Closure is never to be found with Debora wanting a sense of sincere remorse from Curtis (what that is, no one knows), while Tamara wanting everyone to get along. The chaotic mix is finished off with the two fathers, who do not believe in the purpose of the dinner to start with, crossing swords. Bill insinuates that Edward, who is a politician, is an absent father and is currently exploiting his son’s death for political gain. Edward parries by accusing Bill of callousness and selfishness.

Despite the ostensibly confrontational nature of this palaver, issues are skirted around, and the adults are none the wiser by the end of it all. It is through this awkward mess of human frailties and contradictions that director Tracie Pang manages to coax a fine piece of naturalistic acting from the cast.

Janice Koh as the sculptor and bereaved Debora sensitively navigates the currents of contradictory emotions that hits her as the evening unfolded. Edward Choy’s portrayal of the reticent Michael is an anchor to Debora’s unravelling. Adrian Pang occasionally hems it up as Bill and belligerently exploits Debora’s and Michael’s oversight as to what Joel was doing online in order to protect his son.  Karen Tan excels as the well-meaning, but unsophisticated Tamara who naïvely thinks all will be well as long as everyone tries to get along.

That said, I am not so sure about Xander Pang’s Curtis. Even though Curtis has very few lines, Pang still has room for interpretation. Is Curtis just keeping his head down till the storm blows over? Is he annoyed by his parents? Is he hiding behind his father? Does he want to reach out to Joel’s parents, but not quite sure how? Pang’s approach is unclear here. What my colleagues see as “sullen”, I see as inactivity safe for the scene in which he reveals his nightmare.

Yet, even though Curtis has few words, his apparent justification of his annoyance with Joel, the latter goes around greeting everyone, “Hey faggot!”, should be a pause for thought.

While this annoyance is never a justification for bullying, where is the line between being confident in one’s sexuality, and being excessively provocative? If Joel is merely acting out due to a sense of repression, how best should his parents help him? Is Joel never at fault in all instances simply because he has died and is part of a minority?

What about Curtis? Where does his fault end? What is an adequate punishment for him? Is he acting out, however misguided it may be, in some way?

How then should we stop cyber-bullying? How should we go about “educating” people not to bully others? Is that even effective?

All of these complex questions relate to the line I quoted to start the review. The chief merit of Tannahill’s play is to warn us not to be Tamaras, but to try and tackle these questions with honesty and in their full complexity.

Other Reviews

“Theatre review: A deep look at bullying and suicide” by Ong Sor Fen, The Straits Times Life! (*Only for subscribers to the newspaper)

Late Company: Nothing’s Normal (About Suicide)” by Cheryl Tan, Popspoken

Late Company by Naeem Kapadia, Crystalworlds

Late Company is just in time” by Lee Shu Yu, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

“Review: Late Company by Pangdemonium” by Bak Chor Mee Boy