[Theatre Review] Puppet Origin Stories by The Finger Players: Of Remembrance and Reïnvention

Courtesy of The Finger Players / Photo: Tuckys Photography

Puppet Origin Stories
The Finger Players
9 November 2022
One-Two-Six Cairnhill Arts Centre
9–13 November 2022

The site of Cairnhill Arts Centre was originally an estate surrounded by nutmeg plantations. The building was also once Anglo-Chinese School and the Teachers’ Training College, among other things.

I am aware of those facts not because I am well-versed in local history, but it was shared with us by the co-artistic directors of The Finger Players, Ellison Tan and Myra Loke, as the prelude to Puppet Origin Stories, a triple bill of performances by artists from various disciplines using puppets from the company’s repository.

With that rather surprising prologue, Puppet Origin Stories is more than a puppetry experimentation or reïnvention; it is also about remembrance and the company’s way of looking back at its history. 

Remembrance and reïnvention are present in all three works.

Chai Jean Yinn as Shadow (left) while Liew Jia Yi manipulates Peng (right) / Photo: Tuckys Photography

In “Jabber”, movement artist Hairi Cromo takes his childhood experiences and creates a piece whereby a boy interacts with a strange creature, which is a physical manifestation of his unresolved feelings. 

Liew Jia Yi deftly handles Peng, the puppet of the boy, by slipping into his feet like slippers while manipulating his hands and head through the rods attached to them. Liew’s movement work is quite detailed as she successfully creates nuances in the boy’s movements such as creating the illusion of distance as the boy greets his friends when they pass him by in school.

Chai Jean Yinn plays the teacher, who strips the boy of his prefect position after he was caught playing a fool in class, and the amorphous creature, Shadow, that haunts the boy. The former is portrayed by wearing a mask, while the latter is portrayed by Chai wearing a headscarf made from different cloths and an oval cookie tin for a face.

Apart from the sweeping movements which creates a ghost-like quality in the creature, Chai also haunts the boy by collapsing her body which lends the creature an amorphous quality.

While one can see the resemblances to Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, which is one of the main inspirations for the piece, it does not have enough thrust in which the boy is working through his feelings. As it stands the boy has a slight revelation and asks the creature to leave him. 

One hopes that this piece will be developed further in future and, if it could really tell the story from the boy’s point of view, it will fulfil the main goal of emphasising the importance of adult’s acknowledging the feelings of children.

Tan Beng Tian visits Ah Ma (handled by Yazid Jalil) in a museum / Photo: Tuckys Photography

“AH MA” by film-maker Tan Wei Ting remembers the past and invents a (hopefully) fictional future when puppetry is no longer practised, and it exists only as artefacts inside a museum display. A puppet, Ah Ma, is chosen to be preserved, but when Tan Beng Tian realises that Ah Ma is unhappy, a museum heist ensues.

Ah Ma is a rod puppet created for A.i.D, Angels in Disguise (2010). As she is suffering from dementia in the original production, she has a jewel inside her head that represents her memories. With a flick, expertly done by a puppeteer, the jewel is flung out, and Ah Ma loses her memories.

The theme of remembrance manifests in many ways. In the context of the piece, will we suffer a kind of cultural dementia as our performance practices die out from the lack of support? Are we truly remembering a performance tradition if it is no longer practised? Is curation a kind of reïnvention?

Tan Wei Ting traverses the past and the imagined future through the interplay of archival footage of A.i.D and having Tan Beng Tian—veteran puppeteer who was involved in handling Ah Ma in A.i.D, and has been with The Finger Players since the beginning—perform in the piece as she navigates a world in which puppetry is dead.

Yazid Jalil doubles up as the bureaucratic curator and the grumpy, but sympathetic security guard who assists in the heist. He displays versatility in both puppetry work and acting as he has to switch characters at a (sometimes literal) drop of a cap.

The duo also showcased some sensitive puppeteering. As the lines of Ah Ma are delivered through a voiceover, the timing has to be absolutely right with details such as breathing or crying added in.

Apart from a sense of poignancy, there is also a sense of child-like playfulness. While Ah Ma steals the show, there is also some—for a lack of a better term— “informal puppetry” going on. 

Tan would sometimes hold and move the curator’s spectacles or security guard’s cap while Yazid delivers his lines before quickly changing characters. This harkens back to the games of make-believe we play as children—perhaps carelessly moving a soft toy while giving it voices might be our very first contact with puppetry.

Mitchell Fang (left) and Deonn Yang (right) handle Moon Baby as it stands on the body of Becca D’Bus / Photo: Tuckys Photography

In line with the provocative title, “Suck Sweat Dry, Baby!”, drag queen Becca D’Bus does not hold back and questions the premise of the whole endeavour. In her first monologue of the piece, she asks what is there to remember for a company with slightly over 20 years of history, and suggests that something only has monetary value if it has a history. 

While that might be incredibly cynical, one cannot help but wonder if there is a kernel of truth when most arts companies are so reliant on state funding, and they have to constantly justify their value to stay afloat.

Beyond the usual drag act of lip-syncing to Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire, the provocation continues in a pastiche of scenes with different puppets. 

In one scene we see Moon Baby hiking up Bukit Timah Hill, represented by the contours of D’Bus’ corseted body. In the course of people-watching, a taxonomy of hikers is created, as Moon Baby wonders about human behaviour and the image that we are trying to portray to others.

In another scene, we see Sponge Girl inadvertently hooking up with Samsui Woman. And we soon see both puppets laying on top of each other while Deonn Yang and Mitchell Fang, who are in full drag, create sound effects that suggest copulation.

In most puppetry traditions, the puppets are often seen as performers themselves and are often treated with a sense of reverence. As such, it might be initially uncomfortable to see the puppets in this new context, which veers into the profane. 

But it is the same reverence that allows us to imbue them with human qualities, and the provocation soon becomes an exploration of human frailties and desire.  

One leaves the piece unsure of what one has just witnessed, but there is a tacit understanding of the need for human connection. 

With Puppet Origin Stories set to be a yearly fixture, the premise and overall direction of the first instalment is a good start. I cannot wait to see how this platform evolves in years to come. 

Other Reviews

Theatre review: Open-ended challenges in Puppet Origin Stories that linger” by Charmaine Lim, The Straits Times Life! (Review is behind a paywall.)

“关于守护的问题——观 ‘Puppet Origin Stories'” by 杨明慧, 剧读 thea.preter

到经禧艺术中心作客—— 观《偶起源故事@126》” by 梁海彬, 剧读 thea.preter

Further Reading

[Interview] Puppet Origin Stories: Same Puppets, New Stories — My interview with the creators of the pieces.

Digital Programme of Puppet Origin Stories

Puppet Origin Stories: Peng — An article about how Peng, which is featured in “Jabber”, came to be.

Puppet Origin Stores: Faceless Maiden — An article about how Faceless Maiden, which is featured in “Jabber”, came to be.

Puppet Origin Stories: Ah Ma — An article about how Ah Ma, which is featured in “AH MA”, came to be.

Puppet Origin Stories: Moon Baby — An article about how Moon Baby, which is featured in “Suck Sweat Dry, Baby!”, came to be.

Puppet Origin Stores: Sponge Girl — An article about how Sponge Girl, which is featured in “Suck Sweat Dry, Baby!”, came to be.

Puppet Origin Stories: Samsui Women — An article about how Samsui Woman, which is featured in “Suck Sweat Dry, Baby!”, came to be.

[Theatre Review] A Midsummer Night’s Dream by ITI — Sparse treatment showcases actors’ versatility

Jemima Dunn as a fairy and Daisy Zhao Xiaoqing as Puck / Photo: Bernie Ng

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Intercultural Theatre Institute
3 November 2022
Esplanade Theatre Studio
3–5 November 2022

I have to admit that when I found out that Beijing Opera, Kutiyattam, and Wayang Wong were incorporated to delineate the characters in A Midsummer’s Night Dream, I had strong reservations. 

It could easily derail into an exotic parade. Additionally, with this being the graduation production by the 2022 cohort of the Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI), it feels like a quick and easy way to showcase what the students learnt, rather than serve the demands of the text.

As the Athenians appear in Chinese opera garb in the first scene, which elicits a short burst of laughter, my heart starts sinking. With the inconsistency in make-up and costume,—none of the actors is in opera make-up, and some of them do not have a head covering—it feels like watching kids playing dress-up.  

Am I to endure 150 minutes of a rude mechanical play within a crude, mechanical performance?

Thankfully, this is not so. 

The rude mechanicals / Photo: Bernie Ng

As the performance goes on, the conceit regarding the various performing traditions becomes clearer. The show does not pretend it is faithful to the art form. Rather, certain aspects are borrowed to accentuate a certain quality of the character or to add to the mise-en-scène. 

To use a very rough analogy, if we liken each performing tradition to a language, rather than it being multilingual, it is more of borrowing a few expressions that capture something which is difficult to translate in one’s native tongue.

In essence, the focus on incorporating various performing traditions in the publicity materials (mea culpa) is over-egging the pudding. 

In that vein, director Aarne Neeme strikes the right balance with the actors when it comes to the fairies and the rude mechanicals. 

Kuttiyatam influences the wide stance, gestures that look like mudras, and the costumes of the fairies. But the production only seems to take the costumes and the gesture of spreading out the cloth hanging from the sides of the costume from Wayang Wong. This results in a cohesive depiction of the fairies and rude mechanicals.

Unfortunately, there is no consensus on how much the actors should borrow from the Beijing opera convention, resulting in them being slightly stifled by the demands of the form and the presence of the water sleeves. 

That said, it should be noted that Ng Yuan Ci (Hermia) is most fluent in the form, as she uses various gestures to portray the besotted or spurned lover to great effect.

Ng Yuan Ci as Hermia and Wong Jin Yi as Helena / Photo: Bernie Ng

But what is truly on display is the versatility of the actors. Of note are Ruthi Lalrinawmi (Titania / Starveling) and Wan Ahmad (Oberon / Snout). Lalrinawmi seems to grow in stature as the graceful Titania while she seems dumpy as Starveling. Being the tallest in the cast, Wan’s height is unmistakable, but the commanding presence of Oberon and the goofy demeanour of Snout is night and day.

While Peh Jun Kai (Bottom) only plays one comedic role, he has full control on the comedic dial throughout the show. He turns it up when he transforms into a donkey, and plays it to the hilt as Thisbe in the play-within-the-play.

Daisy Zhao Xiaoqing’s (Puck / Snug)  interpretation of Puck is interesting. Beyond the usual playfulness, she occasionally flashes a sinister side to the prankster, which is seldom seen in most portrayals. 

Oliver S.K. Wu (Lysander) and Kaleem Zafar (Demetrius) occasionally struggle with the mountain of mawkish text as they try to woo the ladies, but their physical sequences, which are borrowed from Beijing opera, are entertaining to watch when both characters are at odds with each other.

To my mind, Helena is the most irritating character in the play, but my impression of her has been rehabilitated by Wong Jin Yi’s wry approach to the character. Her deadpan expressions and opportune asides to the audience make us sympathetic to her being subjected to the cold-and-hot treatment (no thanks to Puck’s intervention) by the Athenian men.  

Kaleem Zafar as Demetrius and Oliver S.K. Wu as Lysander / Photo: Bernie Ng

As it is a graduation production, it is understandably bare when it comes to the set (curtains of what looks like transparent acrylic strips) and sound (generic Chinese opera or Indian music to signify the entrance of the characters). 

The lack of stage effects may result in the show being rather dry, but it is a testament to the overall success of the show that the audience is engaged throughout the whole performance. 

And what a fitting end for ITI’s class of 2022! Undergoing three years of actor training during a pandemic must seem like a feverish dream for them. 

Other Reviews

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by ITI 2022 Graduating Cohort” by Philippe Pang

剧评:A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Neo Hai Bin, 剧读 thea.preter

Further Reading

[Interview] Director Aarne Neeme on ITI’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Digital Programme of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

[Theatre Review] The Fourth Trimester by Checkpoint Theatre Brings Up Gravid Issues

Samantha (Isabella Chiam) and Aaron (Joshua Lim) struggle to care for their newborn / Photo: Crispian Chan

The Fourth Trimester
Checkpoint Theatre
4 August 2022
Drama Centre Theatre
4–14 August 2022

Getting pregnant and giving birth may seem like the most natural thing to some of us. But to do so safely and ensuring the child thrives can be absolutely mind-boggling.

Faith Ng’s The Fourth Trimester features three couples and a single woman who span the spectrum of circumstances regarding pregnancy. 

Samantha (Isabella Chiam) and Aaron (Joshua Lim) struggle to care for their newborn. In contrast, their neighbours, Sofia (Rusydina Afiqah) and Johan (Al-Matin Yatim) struggle to conceive. While Lisa (Julie Wee) and Daniel (Hang Qian Chou) seem to be doing fine with two children, their communication problems regarding intimacy issues strain the marriage. Having just come out of a relationship, Ann (Oon Shu An), who is Lisa’s sister, strives to be independent as she faces the attendant pressures of being a single woman in Singapore.

While medicine has progressed by leaps and bounds, pregnancy is still a very personal process with each body responding in different ways. As someone who has yet to witness the pregnancy of a partner, the choices that Samantha and Sofia have to consider are bewildering. 

The acronyms and abbreviations of various readings or medical processes rattled off by the characters will give any rapper a run for his money. And the pump-and-rest routine, recommended by the lactation expert for Samantha, sounds like a manic choreography created by an evil robot. 

Add the emotional burden of self-doubt; comparing oneself to others; and familial and societal expectations, it sounds nothing short of a messy ordeal. 

Far from avoiding it, Ng takes a deep dive into the messiness of human relationships and writes them in very affecting ways.

From the audience members cooing in sympathy with the opening scene to the countless post-show Instagram stories yapping about how “relatable” the play is, it is clear that the audience is in for the ride at every second of the three-hour emotional odyssey. 

However, all these knee-jerk reactions overlook something that director Claire Wong has done that is rarely achieved. She allows the scenes to breathe and run its emotional course. Many directors often cut their scenes short after a revelation or climax, almost apologetic about taking up the audience’s time.

This is complemented by the actors experiencing every crinkle of emotion. Witness Isabella Chiam as Samantha going from anxiousness to anguish, before picking herself up; or Julie Wee’s Lisa starting with annoyance, but ending with red-faced rage. 

The other characters have similar moments as they cycle through the whole gamut of emotions, undergirded by an inability to articulate, or expecting the other to know and fulfil one’s physical and emotional needs. This makes the relationship familiar and infuriating, yet all too human.

That said, how everything settles into the ending is a little unsatisfactory. As we are taken to such emotional highs and lows, the way the show ends feels as if it is because the allotted time of three hours is up. 

At the curtain call, director Claire Wong mentioned that the production took many trimesters for it to be put together. For a play that makes one feel so much and reflect on so many issues, it will be remembered for many more trimesters hence. 

Other Reviews

“Theatre review: The Fourth Trimester is a must-watch play about parenthood” by Olivia Ho, The Straits Times Life! (Review is behind a paywall. Read the partial transcript here.)

“Pandemic era’s first essential Singapore play” by Helmi Yusof, The Business Times (Review is behind a paywall. Read the partial transcript here.)

[Theatre Review] Asylum by ITI — Where Safety and Humanity Collide

Photo: Bernie Ng / Courtesy of Intercultural Theatre Institute

Asylum
Intercultural Theatre Institute
26 May 2022
SOTA Studio Theatre
26–28 May 2022

The Asylum is established with actors taping everything to demarcate the lines and boundaries of the set. 

Those who are familiar with theatre will be familiar with the slight buzzing sound when the tape is pulled to mark the stage. However, with 12 rolls of tape going at the same time, the buzz grows and is reminiscent of a swarm of pests invading a space. 

By all accounts, the opening sequence and its significations of the lines and boundaries that we draw for ourselves, or are imposed on us, are clear-cut and simple. But the visceral impact such a simple device has is a testament to the wondrous alchemy that is Jean Tay’s script with Oliver Chong’s direction.  

From there, one witnesses the unravelling of an asylum as a fictional infectious disease rages on in a colonial settlement, and rumours of a tiger roaming the boundaries increases the tensions within the asylum.

The graduating cohort of the Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI) plays 12 different characters: four female patients (Daisy Zhao Xiaoqing, Ng Yuan Ci, Ruthi Lalrinawmi, Wong Jin Yi), four male patients (Kaleem Zafar, Karlwinn, Peh Jun Kai, Will Wong Keng Ip), two nurses (Ismael Gallaza Pantao, Oliver S.K. Wu), a doctor (Jemima Dunn), and a security guard (Wan Ahmad).

The patients are treated more like inmates, as they are constantly observed by the asylum staff, led by the doctor who carries a big stick. They also fall along a spectrum of coming to terms with the fact that their family and society have abandoned them—from naïveté to being downright jaded.

In this highly charged atmosphere, it is inevitable that the characters would clash with each other due to their conflicting desires. The collisions happen on different levels, and fueled by fear and rumours, result in an implosion. Several patients attempt to escape as the staff tries to hold the fort while looking out for the tiger.

A moment of care between patients / Photo: Bernie Ng

A way to get a grip on the conflict would be to see it as a conflict between safety and humanity. Intuitively, it might seem easy to understand both concepts at first, but one soon realises that it is difficult to articulate precisely what constitutes both. 

Separating patients with infectious disease from the community for the sake of safety makes sense on some level. But how far does this entail policing the movements and lives of the patients? 

Wanting to live one’s life with a freedom to choose is understandable, but how much freedom should one have without harming the well-being of the wider community?

Jean Tay’s decision to abstract her script away from the peculiarities of old quarantine sites in Singapore not only allows the deeply resonant debate of safety and humanity to come to the fore, it also allows her to touch on the inner fears and hysteria of the unknown, which serves as a foil to the supposed tiger outside the walls of the asylum. 

Tay’s ambitions are matched by the deft direction of Oliver Chong. With all the characters being on stage throughout the show, it is tempting to par down the interactions such as letting the characters sleep in their cell when the focus is not on them. However, Chong decides against it, and this results in all sorts of unspoken interactions that entices one to rewatch the show several times. 

The rigorous training of the actors in various traditional art forms have certainly paid off in terms of their presence and synergy. This is evident during the climatic scene in which the patients stage their getaway. The movement around the set and the stillness when tragedy strikes, creating some beautiful stage pictures.

Tragedy strikes / Photo: Bernie Ng

While there are some mis-timed line deliveries and the buildup was not intense enough to warrant the climax on the opening night, it is a beast of a show. This critic cheers the actors on and hopes the beast is tamed by the third show. 

There may be no armed guards or barbed wires, and the act of quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic in Singapore is seen as a social responsibility, but scratch the surface and we realise that we are still being tracked, traced, categorised, and imposed upon. 

Where we draw the line between safety and humanity will forever be contentious, making Asylum a play worth restaging from time to time.

Other Reviews

“[Review] Asylum — These Ties That Bind” by Philippe Pang, Arts Republic

Further Reading

Interview with Jean Tay (playwright) and Oliver Chong (director)

Interview with ITI students

Leprosy: A Story of Suffering, But Also of Hope by Danielle Lim, BiblioAsia (Apr-Jun 2020)

[Theatre Review] No Disaster on This Land by The Finger Players — What disaster? What land?

Hairi Cromo as Table Boy and Vanessa Toh as Debris Girl / Photo: Tuckys Photography

No Disaster on This Land

The Finger Players

25 February 2022

Drama Centre Black Box

24–27 February 2022

In its bid to place the process of puppetry construction at the forefront, The Finger Players decided to create No Disaster on This Land around the puppets crafted by Loo An Ni during her stint with The Maker’s Lab

The production is helmed by the co-artistic directors of the company as Myra Loke directs, while Ellison Tan came up with the general narrative through a workshopping process.

The two puppets featured are Table Boy and Debris Girl. Loo wanted to work on exoskeletons and a modular system which would allow one to easily make modifications to a base structure. This prevents wastage from creating a completely new puppet for every show. 

Both puppets have an exoskeleton with aluminium extensions. For Table Boy, different table legs are attached all along the extensions. For Debris Girl, intimations of flesh and concrete pieces are placed along the extensions. 

In the show, these two characters are placed in an apocalyptic scene with concrete bricks and a backdrop of a partial grid wall, as we see how they interact.

The information above was mostly gleaned from the digital programme booklet. The information that we should be getting from watching the production, however, is fuzzy. 

Who are the characters? What sort of world do they inhabit? Why are they there? These questions are hardly answered as we see two characters tentatively existing in the same space. 

Beyond the initial encounter, as the characters suss each other out, it is difficult to make out the dynamics of the relationship. What are they disagreeing about? How are these conflicts actually resolved? How did they fall in love? (I only know they fall in love because the synopsis mentions a “love story”.)

A love story? But how did it develop? / Photo: Tuckys Photography

What about the puppets themselves? Do we ignore the human puppeteers and take the built structure as characters? Or are the structures extensions of the puppeteers, and both man and mechanics form a creature?

Given the skeletal nature of the puppets, it would seem that the latter is the case. But what sort of creatures are they? What do the extensions do? Are they hands or do they have some sort of magical power? 

In terms of actual movements, the extensions are used to move the concrete bricks perfunctorily as the puppeteers still use their hands when not manipulating the extensions. 

To make matters worse, the general rigidity of straight aluminium rods for the extensions meant that there is a limit to what the puppeteers could do with them. In manipulating Table Boy, Hairi Cromo carries the structure like a shell. And the extension occasionally gets in the way of Vanessa Toh’s movement work as Debris Girl—she has to figure out how to tuck it away when she is on the floor. 

All these limitations mean that whatever metaphors or concepts that the show is trying to convey are not articulated clearly. For example, a baby doll and a cradle feature quite strongly in the show. Do they symbolise birth, rebirth, or a literal baby?

Despite all the flaws, there are a couple of lovely moments.

Lovely moments emanating from the anguish of Table Boy / Photo: Tuckys Photography

When we are first introduced to Table Boy we see Hairi Cromo seemingly struggling against the structure placed upon him. Despite the black box being a rather small space, the intensity of his physicality, coupled with the garish strains of the electric guitar and the distortion of Hairi’s voice provided by Ctrl Fre@k, amplifies the struggle to tectonic proportions.

In another moment of anguish later in the show, Hairi rears his puppet up like a pair of wings, and the table legs attached look as if they are floating above him. This seems to suggest a certain sense of implosion or disintegration. 

Unfortunately, those moments could not save the show that is vague in its intent and story-telling.

Further Reading

Interview with director, Myra Loke

Interview with Loo An Ni

[Theatre Review] Borderline by PSYCHEdelight: On the Side of Humanity

Refugees huddling together on a boat / Photo: José Farinha

Borderline

PSYCHEdelight

Online

12–23 January 2022

Part of M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2022

In the opening sequence of Borderline, a few actors take turns to come on stage and remove their shoes. At the same time, live musicians play Bella Ciao to accompany the sequence. Slightly upstage, there are mountains of shoes. 

The sight of the numerous shoes is a stark reminder of the number of people who had to flee their countries. It reminds me of a Holocaust exhibit which has piles of shoes from the vicitims. But from a distance, it looks like piles of rubbish in the Calais jungle, a makeshift refugee settlement in France.

Despite the sombre themes, complemented by the music that uses the revised lyrics by the Italian resistance movement, the jaunty tune and the actors’ playfulness lend a jovial, almost circus-like atmosphere.

The juxtapositions and seeming simplicity encapsulates the spirit of the show which aims to be a comedy about the tragic refugee situation. 

Through a series of vignettes, we witness the various difficulties the refugees had to endure in order to cross the border: the various means to survive; uncaring bureaucracy; and the absurd actions of supposed do-gooders. 

While the cast—comprising a mix of refugees who managed to find asylum in Britain and Europeans—uses their own names, we are not given any biographical information about the refugees. This allows us to look at the different facets of their experiences in general, without being pulled in by one particular story. 

It also emphasises their humanity, warts and all. They are not simply pure, helpless victims. They have ingenuity as well as weaknesses as evident from the scene where the refugees try to exaggerate the provenance of the donated clothes in the hopes of getting a good price for them.

Police trying to haul a refugee out of a refrigerated truck / Photo: José Farinha

Just as the refugees had to make do with little, the cast deftly transports us to various settings through devised movement sequences. From trains to a police dog sniffing out refugees, the synergy among the cast members is a joy to behold. 

As this recording is made specially for video due to the pandemic scuppering any plans for the company to tour, there is an added complexion to the presentation of this performance. 

There is an inspired choice in the cinematography and editing which presents us with certain scenes as though they were filmed with a camcorder. This adds a mockumentary flavour to the show that live audiences might not get, thus giving the satire about the exploitativeness of news reports and documentaries more bite.

While there are no easy solutions as the world sets about beefing up their physical and legislative borders, this show resolutely stands in humanity’s camp.

[Theatre Review] OK Land by Circle Theatre (Thailand) — Ills We Conveniently Overlook

Boss and Joy, employees of OK Land

OK Land
Circle Theatre (Thailand)
Online
12–23 January 2022
Part of M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2022

Convenience stores are quick and dirty. We visit them for an easy fix to satisfy our hunger, thirst, or nicotine and alcohol urges. Little thought is given to it, and we even overlook the higher prices in exchange for the sheer convenience.

But in Circle Theatre’s OK Land, a chain of convenience stores in Angel Land, it becomes an arena where the wants of different segments of society play out.  

The whole set-up is a thinly veiled reference to a dystopian future that is quite close to home. As the Zombie Ant disease ravages the whole world, we see two store employees; a food blogger; an architect that has just returned from Trumpland; a student activist; a poor, hungry woman; and a ghost coalescing in the convenience store. 

Triggered by the poor woman trying to steal food from the store, issues of growing restrictions, corporate dominance, inefficient bureaucracy, social media prominence as social capital, and political activism come to the fore.

As the characters debate how best to help the woman, while a ghost bears witness by filming everything, personal interests are slowly revealed. This shows how messy socio-political issues can be as it is difficult to untangle the personal from the political.

The characters try to help Pa Orn, the poor and hungry woman

Yet, in the midst of the cacophonous debate, we hardly hear the poor woman apart from her laments and desperate outbursts.

Even though the show is being touted as a reflection on society by other critics, something is missing as most of the characters are middle class. We soon realise that this particular outlet of Ok Land is near a condominium that some of the characters live in, several storeys above the majority of the population. 

Despite these flaws, kudos to director Paspawisa Jewpattanagul for a taut production and playwright Nuttamon Pramsumran for fleshing out a variety of important issues, without forcibly shoehorning them into the production. 

Additionally, the Zombie Ant disease is not merely a quirky alternative to COVID-19. It is an allegory of how we are hosts to the ills of society and are blindly behaving according to the way these ills have structured society. 

At the end of the show, there is a rallying cry from the student activist to work towards change; to carry on even though it feels hopeless. But how do we change course when we, like the ants, only recognise our territory and therefore our path by familiar smells?  


OK Land was originally staged from 3 to 12 December 2020 at 6060 Arts Space, Bangkok, Thailand. The online stream for the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival features a recording of one of the performances.

[Theatre Review] ‘The Karims’ Explores the Burdens and Warmth of Familial Ties

Photo: Checkpoint Theatre

Keluarga Besar En. Karim (The Karims)
Checkpoint Theatre
Online, Sistic Live
29 September–15 October 2021

If one were asked, “What makes a family a family?” How many of us would be able to provide an insightful answer beyond displaying birth certificates and family trees?

In Keluarga Besar En. Karim (The Karims), playwright Adib Kosnan explores the dynamics of a Singaporean Malay family through the new addition of a son-in-law, Aqil. Likened to a new player joining a football team, he wades through the entanglements and expectations of his new family, as long-held resentments surface. 

In his new team, Aqil (Adib Kosnan) has to contend with his father-in-law, Karim (Rafaat Hj Hamzah), who expects everyone to attend to familial obligations, sometimes at the expense of their desires. This leaves his sister-in-law, Rinny (Rusydina Afiqah), seething in resentment as she believes her father will never understand her.

Normah (Dalifah Shahril), his mother-in-law, may appear to be a typical housewife obsessed with K-dramas, her maternal instincts keep her own family drama from spiraling out of control. His wife, Balqis (Farah Lola), is trying to put off being independent from her family as Aqil is considering emigration. 

While the conversation is seemingly quotidian and the show feels like a dish in a slow cooker, there are several plot lines that untangle quite quickly as we move along. Through Claire Wong’s sensitive direction and Adib’s knack for storytelling, we see tensions rising to the surface only to be dispelled or deferred just before it veers into melodrama. 

With the bulk of cinematography, directed by Joel Lim, consisting of very tight close-ups, there is no space for the actors to hide except to inhabit their characters with complete sincerity. On that score, the actors really stepped up to the plate. I find myself being fully involved; ardently wishing for Karim and Rinny to meet each other halfway or giggling with the women as the daughters discuss their mother’s taste in men. 

Speaking of cinematography, this production resists any neat categorisations such as theatre for film or a short film. Despite the tight shots, it does not try to convince you that it is filmed in an actual apartment and there are a couple of scenes in a car, depicted by the well-worn conventions of actors sitting close together with some cursory miming from Karim as he seems to drive on a very straight road. 

The shot occasionally zooms out and we see an empty square which represents the grave of Diana, the child that the Karims lost. In a scene where we see Karim and Aqil performing a ritual while tending to the grave, the camera focuses on the hands and multiple shots are superimposed, forming a kind of palimpsest. Such gestural language is characteristic of Checkpoint Theatre’s productions.

Yet, this also points to unrealised possibilities—if the creative team does not want this to strictly be a short film, why not make better use of the Esplanade Theatre Studio and introduce more theatrical conventions to enhance the storytelling?

Throughout the show, we gradually learn about the motivations of different characters as well as the backstory of some events, and all of them come to a head at a family dinner. As all of this has been on a slow simmer, it is slightly discordant that they are resolved so quickly by Alqis’s comments about the importance of family. 

It is as if playwright Adib Kosnan is apologetic about taking too much of his audience’s time that he quickly deploys Alqis-Ex-Machina to take all the messy strands and tie them into a bow.

Despite that minor flaw, we are more than compensated by a stunning performance by Rafaat Hj Hamzah as he portrays Karim shrinking from an obstinate patriarch to a scared and broken man. His strident voice at the beginning of the dinner shrivels into a whimper as he reveals his fears.

Looking up from my screen as the credits roll, I cannot help but wonder which character I resemble most in my own family. Just as an ‘outsider’ casts a light on something that the Karims took for granted, this fictional family would do the same for many others who have the privilege of paying them a visit.

Further Reading

Interview with Playwright Adib Kosnan about Keluarga Besar En. Karim (The Karims)

Other Reviews

“Theatre review: In-law tensions in finely wrought family drama The Karims by Ong Sor Fern, The Straits Times Life!

[Theatre Review] RevoLOOtion – Resolutely Seeking Alternatives

L-R: Tobi (played by Aaron Kaiser Garcia) and Gaga (played by Kewal Kartik) / Photo: Bernie Ng

RevoLOOtion
Intercultural Theatre Institute
29 April 2021
Goodman Arts Centre Black Box
29 April–1 May 2021

To most of us, we hardly give a second thought about lavatories because we expect them to be there. But the run on loo rolls in 2020 compels us to pause for thought. 

Perhaps this makes the urban Singaporean audiences amenable to RevoLOOtion, a showcase by the graduating cohort of the Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI).

Conceived as a performance and a workshop, the audience is split into three groups: public service officer, bulldozer, and villager. We then witness a story about a village whose sole lavatory is slated for demolition and the reactions of some villagers.

Baba (Marvin Acero Ablao), the village elder, is resigned to it. Gaga (Kewal Kartik), the orphan, wants a peaceful protest. Tobi (Aaron Kaiser Garcia), the general worker, wants to fight. Yaku (Sandeep Yadav), the carpenter, is worried about how this confrontation will affect his livelihood and family. Long (Lin Jiarui), the farmer, is worried about his mother. Lutin (Sonu Pilania), the shopkeeper, wants to negotiate. 

The diversity and contradictory desires and plans of the characters result in a terrible outcome. The audience members, in their respective roles, are then asked to come up with an action plan to change the outcomes.

L-R: Lutin (played by Sonil Pilania) and Baba (played by Marvin Acero Ablao) / Photo: Bernie Ng

While the performance manages to elicit some sympathy for the villagers, it stops short of winning the audience over to their side. The motivations of the characters, both in the text and performance, are not fully fleshed out.

For example, it is not clear why Lutin gives up and lies to Yaku after being rebuffed by the public service officer in his attempt to negotiate over the phone. Why would he make things worse by lying, rather than saying he failed? 

Perhaps the creative team decided on some restraint so that the audience does not assume too much or how the characters would react. This might limit the possibilities of how the audience decides to intervene later. 

Even so, there must be a sense that the character truly believes that he has done all he can given the circumstances. However, this was not fully conveyed.

That said, the actors do possess a certain synergy and manage to build up the tension in each succeeding scene up to the final confrontation with the bulldozers.

Long (played by Lin Jiarui) / Photo: Bernie Ng

The workshop section was deftly facilitated by Li Xie (who also directed the show), Chng Xin Xuan, and Chng Yi Kai. We are shown possible intervention points and are required to come up with an action plan to hopefully create a better outcome. 

As the scenario plays out, there was an emphasis on taking it step-by-step rather than pushing for an ultimate conclusion. Li Xie reminded us that we were not there to change the world; a small change is still a change.

While most workshops of this nature focus on empowering the audience to have their voices heard and make a change, a refreshing element is the facilitators asking the characters how they feel about the alternative scenario. They then express that feeling through a shape or gesture. 

This provides an alternative view of the impact the audience’s plan has on others, and a start to more conversations if we had more time. 

The sceptical part of me thinks that the conditions presented were too ideal as everyone had goals in a similar direction. However, what left an impression was Li Xie encouraging the representative from the villagers group to think of more alternatives. After all, a change—however small—is better than the status quo. 

The challenge is to scale this up and apply this to our public discourse.

Further Reading

Interview with the actors of RevoLOOtion

Interview with Li Xie, director of RevoLOOtion

Other Reviews

“#unravellingimpressions of RevoLOOtion by ITI – Intercultural Theatre Institute” by Ke Weiliang, unravelling Facebook page.

“[Review] RevoLOOtion – Walk alone so it’s faster, or walk together so we can go further?” by Yaiza Canapoli, Arts Republic.

“★★★☆☆ Review: RevoLOOtion by Intercultural Theatre Institute” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

[Comic Book Review] Putu Piring – A Ruminative Snack

The nostalgia that I write about, that I study, that I feel, is the ache that arises from the consciousness of lost connection.

Michael Chabon, ‘The True Meaning of Nostalgia’, The New Yorker

If Chabon’s characterisation is accurate, the “consciousness of lost connections” could not be more keenly felt during the circuit breaker period (a nation-wide lockdown in all but name) at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.  

It is out of this context that Putu Piring is conceived. 

The lost connection is manifested in “the ghost of a wild boar” as a man decides to buy putu piring (steamed rice cakes) and cycles to a park―his favourite childhood haunt―to feed the wild boar. En route, he contemplates the various changes in his life. 

Like a well-prepared dish, Tay’s text is sparse yet impactful, as he manages to encapsulate the changes in the protagonist’s life with a few food items that serve as striking metaphors. 

In an interview, writer Myle Yan Tay explained that he chose putu piring for his story because it is sentimental yet current; it evokes a sense of the past, yet it is still around today. In a similar vein, the contemplations of the protagonist straddles being elegiac and coming to terms with the changes. Such a choice strikes the right chord as it leaves space for the reader to contemplate about one’s own life in tandem with the protagonist. 

Illustration by Shuxian Lee

Shuxian Lee’s illustrations may appear simple, but they have some delightful subtleties. She uses shades of brown for scenes in the past to give it a sepia complexion. This is in contrast to the monochromatic colour scheme for the present. However, the contrast is not too stark and there are portions where past and present seem to meld together. This is in harmony with the aims of the plot that straddles both past and present.

There is a striking use of small panels in various sections of the comic, which only shows an element of the whole picture such as the snout of the wild boar or the fingers of the protagonist’s grandfather. This resembles the nature of our memories as we tend to recall in vignettes. Additionally, it complements the literary elements such as placing emphasis on the culinary metaphors. 

With it being only 20 pages long, Putu Piring might be bite-sized as compared to other comics. However, it offers a flavourful bite that tempts one to crave for more. 

Further Reading

Interview with Myle Yan Tay and Shuxian Lee on Putu Piring