Teater Ekamatra presents Baca Skrip: #_____

In an unexpected turn of events, rather than worrying about creating new works through a digital medium, Teater Ekamatra decides to team up with veteran theatre producer Fezhah Maznan to look back at key works in Malay theatre through a series called Baca Skrip: #______.

Baca Skrip is a monthly online script read of Malay plays by prolific Malay playwrights from Singapore. The scripts are selected based on their impact on Singapore Malay theatre history and / or are representative of the chosen playwright’s oeuvre.

Each session will be accompanied with an introduction which provides a sense of the historical, social, political, and cultural context of the work. After the reading, a critical response will be given by an invited guest. This is meant to provide audience several ways of looking at the work.

This series serves to rekindle the work with today’s Malay theatre audience and create a sense of continued history for Singapore Malay theatre in general.

First Session (29 May, 8 p.m.)

Baca Skrip: #HantaranBuatMangsaLupa

Genap 40 (read by Shida Mahadi and Izzul Irfan)

Hawa, who is pregnant, receives a premonition that she will meet Malaikat (angel) on the 39th day, where she hopes to enquire about the fate of her child and her self; revealing her true desire to challenge predestination.  

W.C. (read by Mish’aal Syed Nasar and KayKay Nizam) 

Two mean in a toilet cubicle. 

They talk, but not a lot. 

They touch but not too much. 

Only the four walls bear witness to their dispositions. 

W.C. was created to examine the complexities between men—abandonment, trust, and maybe even love. It speaks of comfort and sacrifice, or lack thereof. 

94:05 (read by Fir Rahman) 

94:05 invites the audience to the life and memories of Ahmad bin Abdullah. As he tidies his studio apartment, Ahmad finds it hard not to reminisce. He shares with us every important juncture he has passed through, slowly revealing his struggles with fate. Every now and then he contemplates mortality, especially in moments when hope becomes fleeting. 


Performed in Malay with accompanying Malay text and English surtitles.

Tickets at $10 from Peatix.

Left Over

Bowl cusps remnants left
by small appetite. Too common
a sight to bother compared to
pit stop lunches preceding lists of
errands to run,
commissions to earn.

The bowl, a faulty tire
by the wayside, offends
incoming occupants planned
for swift and sharp refuel.
The race that ensues requires
full concentration; leaving no space
to tar one’s shoes.

The bowl is cleared, not by one
from the hunched, underpaid,
and neglected team.
But by a man, neatly dressed with
umbrella hooked on arm that
extends to deft hand which
swoops in to take the bowl

and puts it to mouth;
swallowing contents along with
remnants of his pride.

Silence issues from gaping
mouths of those in the pits
as the man departs.

But it is soon broken
by chatter pronouncing
hungry hopes superior
to that of body to drown
him out.

The bowl is left cusping
the absence
of an unwitting offering.

Isaac Tan

[Book Review] Panama and Beyond by Debby Detering

Panama and Beyond: Letters from Cuba, Panama, and by steamship to and from Panama 1907–1914
Debby Detering
Self-published (2019)/ 259 pp.
To purchase the book, click here.

Letters and journal entries are useful sources which reveal the everyday lived experience of people who lived in the past. But a detailed chronicle of the construction of the Panama Canal and the going-ons of a ship does feel repetitive to the lay reader after a while.

In Panama and Beyond, Detering circumvents this by guiding the reader through assiduous research. Drawing from a variety of sources, she furnishes us with pictures and quotes to bring the minutiae in letters and journals to life.

Through a passage of eight years (1907-1914), we embark on a vicarious voyage through the letters and journals of Detering’s relatives. From a family gathering in Cuba; to the author’s grandfather, William Hobby, working on the Culebra Cut, the central section of the Panama Canal; and the return trip from Panama to San Francisco through Hobby’s journals.

Nothing seems to escape the letter-writers as they detail anything that catches their fancy; working conditions, foods, styles of dress etc. Paired with Detering’s research, we learn of interesting factoids such as Dr Gorgas’ hypothesis of fever being transmitted by mosquitoes and his work in preventing transmissions in Panama; Satsuma buttons; and a newsletter which details the amount of excavation done in the canal, thereby sparking a healthy competition amongst the workers.

Such details not only entertain the general reader with a healthy curiosity, but they also provide excellent starting points for research into a history of engineering, trade, labour, transportation, travel, and many more.

Additionally, the pairing of source material and research does not feel like a bombardment, but more of a knowledgeable aunt guiding you through the unveiling of her family album. This makes it easy to dip in and out of the book.

More importantly, despite a clear effort in the curation to produce a coherent timeline, Detering does not attempt to sanitise history despite it concerning her relatives. The sheer racist disdain of the other workers by Charles Potter may be hard to read, but it something we all have to come to terms with.

Ultimately, Panama and Beyond is an insightful read about an important slice of American history and expansion, while providing us with details about the sights and sounds of other countries in the South America in the early 1900s.


This review is made possible by Reedsy Discovery. 

[Dance Review] Busloads of Fun

Back of the Bus
Java Dance Theatre (with local artists)
15 March 2020
Various places in Bukit Panjang
14‒22 March 2020
Part of Arts in your Neighbourhood 2020

In the dreariness of our lives, some of us might wish that life could be a musical or a dance piece, even for a brief moment. New Zealand-based Java Dance Theatre grants such a wish to their audience, as we wonder how much dancing one can do on an ordinary moving bus.

The repertoire on this journey consists of character dances in relation to bus rides, contemporary work that takes place outdoors, and endearing moments of human-to-human connection which is part of the company’s ethos.

In this whimsical ride, we get a trio of dancers. Choreographer and performer Sacha Copland brings in the laughs with her rambunctious energy; her effort to pretend to struggle on the bus while ensuring she could actually balance is no mean feat. She also throws in a couple of surprises that are simple, but creative.

With her striped top and breezy movements to French music, Lauren Carr evokes the bliss of the French Riviera. While her movements are fluid and free-flowing, they are anchored by a certain precision in her extensions.

As a counterpoint, local dancer Adele Goh’s staccato movements relays the tension we feel on public transport in peak hour. In another piece, we see her display her contemporary dance pedigree in a heartfelt duo with Carr that seems to hint at longing and connection.

The pieces which sees the trio dancing together not only entertain but impress as the dancers perform athletic feats on the bus.

All this is complemented by local accordionist, Syafiqah ‘Adha and a cheerful host, Sabrina Sng.

The tour brings audience to various parts of Bukit Panjang which they might not know about. While the pit stops are relatively familiar to me, it allows one to look at the place in a fresh perspective.

While much more can be said about the planned bits of the show, the unplanned elements of the show do add to the experience.

The occasional honk of a car or scampering of a passer-by alerts one to the contrast between the performance and the quotidian. But it also emphasises what more can be experienced if one is simply open to the rhythms and atmosphere of wherever one is.

Throughout the trip, I have lost count of the number of drivers who stopped beside our bus, but their eyes were dead set ahead; completely oblivious to the seeming mayhem and wonderment that is happening right beside them. If only they looked up.

So it turns out that one could do a whole lot of dancing on a moving bus. And, to borrow a comment uttered by a French audience member, “c’est magnifique!”

 

[Interview] Finding Resonances in Poop! with Berak

To kick off their 2020 season, Teater Ekamatra presents Berak, a transcreation of Chong Tze Chien’s Poop!, which chronicles an aftermath of the suicide. 

I spoke to transcreator Zulfadli Rashid (ZR) and director Mohd Fared Jainal (MFJ) to find out more about the piece and what drew them to Chong’s original play, which can be considered a modern classic in our theatre canon. 

The work is described as a transcreation of Chong Tze Chien’s Poop! Could you explain what do you mean by “transcreation”?

MFJ: Transcreation is becoming quite synonymous to our line of work at Ekamatra. Apart from creating original plays, we find originality within these scripts that resonate strongly as viewed through the lens of an ethnic minority.

In Harap (2017), it was about suicide and homosexuality; Potong (2018) talks about dementia in the family with a transgender character; and A Clockwork Orange (2019) was about violence.

Poop! is a great play written by Chong Tze Chien and it’s one of those that strike an emotional chord based on the plot and premise—a broken family whose father committed suicide and a daughter fighting cancer and on the brink of her impending  fate.

What drew you to transcreate Poop! in the first place?

ZR: I watched Poop! a few years ago. I remembered that I left the theatre with such sorrow. No silver lining, no moral of the story. Still so beautiful. I loved how honest it chose to be. Then, sometime in 2018/2019, Shaza asked if I was interested in adapting Poop!  I just had to do it.

MFJ: As depressing as it may seem, on a micro level, these characters represent people who have lost so much—dignity, will, trust, identity, and the meaning to live. They could be our family; friends; neighbour; colleague; the person sitting opposite us in the train; the taxi driver; the stall owner; the man in suit; the lady on a bicycle. Just anyone.

But on a larger view, it reflects how the system is causing people to struggle, to have a skewed perspective and face death way before we are boxed up. 

Are death and berak taboo subjects in a “Malay” cultural context and in Islam? If so, could you elaborate on this?

ZR: I don’t think the Malays view these things as taboo. We talk about both death and passing motion all the time, but some do it  “beralas” (Malay-styled euphemism).

Islam also does not view these subjects as taboo. Death is merely a rite of passage for a human being, and it is not the final destination. How one dies, however, will determine one’s fate in the afterlife.

MFJ: About 98 per cent of Malays are Muslims by default and these plays may contain difficult issues or taboos that do not sit comfortably to some. However, they deserve the attention as we continue to represent a wider spectrum of people within our community. It may not lead us to any solutions, but the bottom line is to acknowledge and say that some people need more help than others. Let’s not sweep it under the carpet.

Are there any interesting discoveries that occurred in the process of transcreation and rehearsals?

ZR: I am always discussing with Fared and Safuan (the sound designer) on how to ensure that Berak is not merely a translated play performed by Malay actors. Berak must exist in a Malay universe with all its absurdities and peculiarities. Only then, I feel that we can have an honest conversation with regards to the play’s subject matter.

MFJ: Zulfadli Rashid (Big) is a bilingual writer who has strong sensitivity towards the Malay language, culture and psyche. He has been brilliant in trans-creating the works at Ekamatra, especially Berak. However, the creative input is not just limited to the playwright or director. Actors, designers, managers and crew help to carve and colour that world, and make it as authentic as possible.

Perspectives definitely change and heightened once culture is brought into the picture. The process of transcreation gives us the artistic licence to build a world within our own parameters and identity.


Berak runs from 25–28 March 2020 at Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre, WILD RICE @ Funan. Tickets from Sistic

Update: This performance has been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

[Interview] 4.48 Psychosis is “already an intercultural work to me”, Director Andy Ng Wai-Shek

In slightly over a week, the graduating cohort of Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI) will present the first ever multi-lingual adaptation of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis. I spoke to director Andy Ng Wai-Shek, an award-winning practitioner from Hong Kong  and alumnus of ITI’s pioneering batch, to find out more about the production.

Andy Ng Wai-Shek / Courtesy of ITI

How does it feel to return to your alma mater as a guest director? How has ITI changed over the years since you were a student?

I still feel very much part of the school even though I have met different faces. There is a vibration that keeps reminding me this is where I came from. After 17 years, I’ve come to realise how this programme isn’t just about simply doing theatre — it’s about personal perceptual experiences.

This programme synthesises the differences between cultures; perceptions of different bodily experiences; the possible marriage of body and mind; and, most importantly, the unanswerable question of how to put different training methods into one. It sets a foundation of life-long research for a person in the evolution of his life. In fact, this is the research I’m still doing all these years since my graduation. I suggest ITI can also play a role to encourage the research.

4.48 Psychosis is not immediately thought of as an intercultural work. What drew you to adapt this piece for ITI?

It is already an intercultural work to me when I knew that I had to work with students from Taiwan, Malaysia, India, and Korea. 4.48 Psychosis is more on personal thoughts and feelings than drama. The structure of it drifts on a stream of consciousness. It is logically disrupted. In other words, it can be very personal.

Though the work is in English, I would like them to try certain scenes in their mother tongue. The idea of it is that there are five storytellers telling the story, sometimes deeply immersing themselves into the very thoughts and feelings of “I”. One of my interest when directing is the connection between one’s consciousness and his or her being. Now, the text says it. The actors need to find their ways to reveal it. They show me according to what they can do individually. That’s already intercultural.

ITI’s graduating cohort rehearsing 4.48 Psychosis / Courtesy of ITI

Given that your actors are from different countries and from all walks of life, were there any interesting conversations about mental health that arose during the rehearsals?

I had depression since last August and have recently stopped my medication. I shared my experience with the students. They shared their experiences with me and their fellow peers. Some students have also consulted a counsellor. I think depression or mental health is already a common issue nowadays, it is just a matter of seeing whether it is serious enough for a person to consult a doctor or not. I am not interested in telling a story of mental disorder. I think the playwright did try her last call for help. Why? I hope that the audience can understand that.

Could you give us a glimpse of what the show would be like? Do you tap on the actors’ intercultural training in your direction of the show?

Five storytellers telling this story, using a psycho-physical approach to develop the work of a visual poem. Yes, some of the scenes to use their intercultural training, but it’s a different look. How so? You will have to come to the show to find out.


4.48 Psychosis by Intercultural Theatre Institute runs from 12–14 March 2020 at The Drama Centre Black Box. Tickets from Peatix.

[Theatre Review] Cats, presented by Base Entertainment Asia

I am honoured to be invited by Hawk Liu (singing teacher, singer, and actor) to share my thoughts on Cats by Andrew Lloyd Webber, brought to Singapore by Base Entertainment Asia.

Full details can be found on Hawk’s website.

In this spontaneous exchange, we talked about the background of the show; how it compares to previous stagings; and what we liked about the actual show that we watched on 19 December 2019.

Addenda

♦ The Guardian article I was referring to is by Katherine Hughes on T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.

Dance / Movement
♦ While we spoke mainly of ballet, there were elements of tap dance, jazz, and contemporary in this musical.

♦ A key element in the musical is audience interaction. The cats were scampering from the audience onto the stage. It may be easy to stand up and do a few cat-like twitches of the head. But the actors actually crawled up and down the aisles. The embodiment here is wonderful. 

♦ There was a strong synchronicity and control in the cast. 

Music

♦ Some may complain that the timbre of the music, with the multiple keyboards, may sound a little dated. But I think it still works for the musical as it creates an unnerving feeling created whenever Macavity is thought to be nearby. 

♦ As with the dramaturgy, there is also a range of music styles present such as rock, music hall, pseudo-opera, and many more.  

♦ “Memory” sung by Grizzabella is good, but slightly marred by the extreme jacking up of her mic’s sound level during the climax of the song. This limits the actor’s ability to expand her presence and voice. It becomes a little jarring. 


More About Hawk Liu

Hawk has interviewed many actors and creatives of big musicals that were brought to Singapore. Visit his website to watch them. 

If you are interested in singing, you can learn more about Hawk’s singing lessons here.

[Theatre Review] Ploddy Todd

Sweeney Todd (Jett Pangan) and Mrs Lovett (Lea Salonga)

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group
Presented by Singapore Repertory Theatre
3 December 2019
Sands Theatre, Marina Bay Sands
28 November‒8 December 2019

We all know that Mrs Lovett has the “worst pies in London”, but at least she could tell us what is in them.

The same cannot be said of Bobby Garcia’s production of Sweeney Todd.

In the programme notes, he states that he drew his inspiration from Hitchcock’s thrillers and wanted to create a scary atmosphere filled with suspense. He also wanted the visual aspects of the show to “subtly comment on the industrial revolution” when technology and automation took over “home made [sic] manufacturing”.

The result?

A production that borrows its vehicles from Grease and wardrobe from Rent. Set designer David Gallo then sprinkles the vehicles all over, while costume designer Rajo Laurel refashions the slum-dwellers as sloppy American teenagers—his idea of deconstructing Sweeney Todd.

The show then starts with the characters spending five full minutes exploring the set with torch lights only to remind the audience to put away their mobile phones—scary and suspenseful indeed.

Worse still, most of the major action is carried out on the back, the bonnet, or inside a utility vehicle. Mr Todd’s barbershop is on the back of a utility vehicle while Mrs Lovett’s pie shop is on the stage. Todd’s victims simply get up from the chair, slides off the side of the vehicle, and walks into cage-like oven on stage right.

As if that cannot get any worse, the utility vehicle has to be manually moved by the ensemble as the floorboards crackle, even in the quieter moments.

Vehicles borrowed from “Grease”, costumes borrowed from “Rent”

Continuing the theme of incoherence is Jett Pangan as Sweeney Todd. Rather than being hell-bent on revenge for his wrongful conviction and the loss of his wife, Pangan’s Todd comes across as a bored teenager in a math class. His sudden outbursts of anger are completely unmotivated. To top it all off, his accent zips across continents at a pace that would put the Concorde to shame. It varies between faux-British, American South, and a sprinkle of the Bronx. His only saving grace is that he could carry a tune, albeit in a very studied fashion.

This is in stark contrast to Lea Salonga’s vivacity as Mrs Lovett, and she maintains her cockney accent impeccably. Her eccentricities are endearing and the way she plays up the comical aspects of Mrs Lovett is refreshing. Mrs Lovett’s pies may be half-baked, but Salonga’s performance is anything but so. One feels sorry for her in “A Little Priest” as Mrs Lovett imagines the various victims that would be used in her pies. Salonga gives everything she got and hits every joke only for it to fall flat when it comes to Pangan—imagine trying to bounce a tennis ball off a soggy pile of mud.

An imperious baritone voice is quite suitable for Judge Turpin (Andrew Fernando), who sentenced Sweeney (then known as Benjamin Barker) while taking the latter’s daughter, Johanna Barker, as his ward. Unfortunately, Fernando cannot seem to shake off his opera training, resulting in some lyrics and spoken text being garbled by the plummy timbre of his operatic baritone voice.

Nyoy Volante’s Adolfo Pirelli, Todd’s competitor who knows of his past, is delightful dainty and one relishes his camp posturing.

Gerald Santos tries his best with the accent as Anthony Hope. He succeeds by delivering his lines with two different types of inflections, thereby giving us a forgettable performance. This is slightly improved when he is with his love interest, Johanna Barker (Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante), who has a pleasant singing voice, and Sondheim ought to be chastised for not giving her more music.

The ensemble as chorus commenting on the story is decent. They serve as the glue that is just about strong enough to prevent this slap-dash production from collapsing into a junk heap.

At the end of it all, one goes away not being spooked one bit, but wishing Mrs Lovett and Pirelli got together and do a thigh-slapping revue instead.

Other Reviews

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street review at Sands Theatre in Singapore – It’s bloody and awful, but not bloody awful” by Andrew Leci, Robb Report Singapore

“Review: Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street by Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment, Presented by Singapore Repertory Theatre” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

[Flash Dance Review] A House is not a Home

The House
Flamenco Sin Fronteras
1 December 2019
Drama Centre Black Box
29 November–1 December 2019
Part of Singapore Flamenco Festival 2019

On the surface, adapting Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba as a flamenco dance theatre piece may seem like a natural choice given that it is a famous Spanish play. But it dawned on me that it is quite difficult to do so.

Unlike classical ballet adaptations, or the Greek myths that companies like Ballet Nacional de España chooses, the play does not have a big sweep of action. It is really text heavy; not the most conducive element for dance.

But the pent-up frustration of the daughters in the Alba household offers an intensity and struggle that flamenco feeds on very well.

Of most interest to me is the intentional breaking of lines by the dancers to reveal the personality of the characters. I admire the attempt to go beyond stock characterisations that is present in most dance theatre.

Mamiko Nekane’s (Bernarda Alba) bending forward is not only an indication of age, but there is an ageing but powerful panther-like quality as she prowls about her household.

It is difficult to maintain one’s characterisation while doing flamenco because of the complex rhythms, and the need to signal to the musicians every time there is a change in the phase of the dance.

But on the occasions when it comes together, and the footwork and musical notes punches the air together, the soniquete is delicious.

 

[Interview] Director Phillip Zarrilli and Playwright Kaite O’Reilly on Lie With Me

Come November, the graduating cohort of the Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI) will be presenting the Asian premier of Kaite O’Reilly’s Lie with Me.

Originally set in London, this production will be localised to look at contemporary life in Singapore through glimpses into the lives of eight young people, exploring issues such as the evolving ‘rules’ of sexual encounters in a ‘swipe right’ culture, and the ways in which people survive and form genuine relationships in an increasingly unstable and consumerist society.

To find out more about the show and the creative process, I spoke to O’Reilly (KOR) and director Phillip Zarrilli (PZ).

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