[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!”

 

[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.

 

[Theatre Review] The Last Generic Hurrah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Theatre Review] A Boatload of Artful Ingenuity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: The Pond Photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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