[Theatre Review] The Last Generic Hurrah

La Mariposa Borracha generally celebrates life in the throes of illness.

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.

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[Theatre Review] A Boatload of Artful Ingenuity

Nelson Chia commands a well-coördinated ship in First Fleet.

Photo: Bernie Ng

First 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

[Theatre Review] Grinning and Bearing It

Happy Waiting pushes its audience’s generosity to the limit.

Happy Waiting
Grain Performance & Research Lab
12 July 2019
Stamford Arts Centre Black Box
12‒13 July 2019

Even if you were unfamiliar with the works of Samuel Beckett, you might know the famous pronouncement that his most famous work, Waiting for Godot, is a “play in which nothing happens […]”

Unfortunately, modern adaptations or productions styled after Beckett takes that too literally and conveniently forgets the second half of that quote by literary critic, Vivian Mercier, “[…] that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats.”

Happy Waiting, written by Beverly Yuen and directed by Bernice Lee, is one such stunning example.

Taking the general premise of Beckett’s Happy Days, Happy Waiting sees Vicky passing her days in a mound; going through her daily routine of getting ready, making breakfast for her husband, and hoping her husband returns home for dinner. In between, we see her recall the past; engage in inane chatter; and finding and losing things. Unlike Beckett’s original, we don’t get a clear presence of her husband except for punctuations of dance sequences by a man only known to us as Bobo (Neo Yan Zhong).

The existential conceit is clear: we trap ourselves in a mound of obsession, desires, wants, and hopes in a general landscape of meaninglessness.

But why would audience be glued to their seats? How dreary it is to trudge through an arduous day, only to be told that we have gone through life and trap ourselves?

What makes Beckett different from Yuen’s adaptation is the presence of danger and humanity. In Beckett’s original, things go wrong or could go wrong—the woman’s parasol catches fire and the presence of a revolver throughout the play is menacing. It is within this shadow, that the woman tries to make the best of what she has and, in the process, reveals the fragility of humanity. The process of getting on, and the mention of a certain Mr Shower asking what it means painfully reminds us of our struggle of making sense of it all, and our need to have our existence acknowledged. And yet the looming possibility of things changing for the worse keeps us where we are.

By contrast, Happy Waiting is absolutely sanitised. There is no threat and nothing actually goes wrong. Vicky (Sonia Kwek) simply grates on one’s nerves as she prattles about, trying to please her husband by cooking his favourite things or recreating dates that they used to go on. Without any further context and external impositions, we simply see her as stewing in her own pathetic self-pity.

What of the performance? The decision only to show the actor’s legs and hands for most of the first part may be a nice touch and change from the original, but it is undermined by Kwek’s inability to imbue more flexibility in the movement of her limbs. We soon fail to see the nuances of character that is supposed to be endowed in her stiletto-adorned feet. Kwek’s general portrayal is a caricature of a Stepford wife, rather than a woman who either truly believes everything is fine or has talked herself into believing so. Her saccharine chime of the day being great rings hollow, and one digs one’s nails deeper into one’s skin every time she says so.

Heap on the usual cheap devices of opening one’s mouth but not being able to say anything, or indicating the presence of tragicomedy by laughing till one cries, and you get bouts of exasperated sighs in the audience (many were heard on opening night) or a lady to my right investigating the split-ends of her hairs.

The slight saving grace is Neo Yan Zhong’s dancing as he displays versatility as he replicates tap dancing in silent movies by merely shuffling his feet; turn into a ghoul that only grunts; or a flamboyant Latin dancer, complete with big sheer ruffles around his neck.

That said, that are other elements that seemed to be added to the original: the play seems to take place over seven days (seven days of creation?); recurring motif of butterflies (an allusion to the Butterfly Lovers?); five baubles (our five senses?) suspended over the main opening of the mound; and the mound looking like a skeletal structure lying over red lights in a  blackout. But all of them are conceptually hazy, and end up being window dressing of a superficial absurdist play.

To be charitable with these elements is merely to create another mound; to justify that one cannot happily wait to recover the 90 minutes that has just been lost. The joke is already on us.

Other Reviews

“Review: Happy Waiting by Grain Performance & Research Lab” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

“Review: ‘Happy Waiting’ by Grain Performance & Research Lab” by Jeremy Lee, The Mad Scene

[Theatre Review] “Flowers” Offers a Subtle but Refreshing Scent

Flowers compels one to reflect on everyday violence.

Flowers
Drama Box
1 May 2019
74 Jalan Kelabu Asap
1‒5 May 2019

Partly due to the current zeitgeist, and partly a coïncidence of production timelines, there have been a slew of shows eager to address issues of gender, harassment, and abuse since last year. A common approach, at least in the shows I have caught, is to state various facts and declare the need for reëducation.

Apart from it being an experiential installation rather than a conventional theatre performance, Flowers (conceived by Han Xuemei in collaboration with playwright Jean Tay, lighting designer Lim Woan Wen, and sound designer Darren Ng) is refreshing because it is more intent on asking questions.

Set in a house within the Holland Village area, audience members are given a cassette player as they listen to a recording of a monologue delivered by Ann Lek, and they wander about a two-storey house for 70 minutes. The monologue details the fraught relationships a woman has with her parents and brother; the known but unspoken violence her father unleashes; and the different expectations placed on her and her brother.

The audience is thus cast as voyeur, investigator, and confidant all at the same time, as we are allowed to open any door and drawer within the house. The quotidian artefacts soon take a life on its own, telling not just the history of the inhabitants, but becoming symbolic extensions of the monologue. For example, the numerous photographs from Officer Cadet School in the brother’s room do not merely tell us that he has served national service, but it also echoes ideas about masculinity and expectations placed on young men.

As such, the physical act of exploring the house parallels the self-reflection that one undergoes. This is enhanced by the evocative, but reticent monologue. If you are expecting a dramatic recount of a violent episode, you will be disappointed. However, the suggestions within the monologue gives one space to fill up the details, perhaps from your own experiences.

This also expands the notion of violence, and how it can be coloured and complicated within a familial dynamic.

The master stroke of the piece comes when, while wandering about, you suddenly chance upon an actor playing the father. He never acknowledges the presence of the audience, but potters about the house, cooking, washing dishes, watering the plants, and watching television.

This sudden inclusion opens up an opportunity for confrontation or reflection. I found myself silently observing the father for any traces of violence, or, at the very least, impatience. My endeavour failed and I soon wondered what I was hoping to achieve.

Why should there be a clear-cut cause and effect? Is the father necessarily a monster, even though he committed a heinous act?  Does the mother have any agency in this dynamic? Where does the buck stop? Do we all also enact violence in our moments of impatience? How do we stop the perpetuation of violence in all its guises? Is it simply a matter of education?

In the cacophony created by stomping on soap boxes and declamations from high horses, the gentle prodding and a space to pause and reflect, as offered by Flowers, may just be a start towards a more productive and sympathetic solution.

Other Reviews

“Drama Box’s Flowers quietly challenges misogyny” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life! 

“The Wars We Fight in Silence — FLOWERS: Review” by Cheryl Tan, Popspoken

“FLOWERS” by Jocelyn Chng, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

“Review: FLOWERS by Drama Box” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

[Theatre Review] Phantom Still Seduces Three Decades On

Phantom of the Opera still entrances in its latest run.

Phantom of the Opera
Brought to Singapore by Base Entertainment Asia
25 April 2019
Sands Theatre, Marina Bay Sands
24 April‒8 June 2019

The last time I watched Phantom of the Opera live about a decade ago, I was a wee lad, still easily impressed by every flash and puff of the stage. The extravagant show seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Since then, I have watched the show multiple times on DVD.

Despite knowing the plot and the little tricks that the phantom plays, the magic has not worn off in this production.

Jonathan Roxmouth sizzles as the tortured Phantom. There is much detail in the way he prowls like a panther in the first act and hunches over slightly as a dejected gargoyle towards the end of the show.

In “Past the Point of No Return”, when he pretends to be Piangi in his own opera, “Don Juan Triumphant”, he disguises himself in a black robe and covers his head with a black hood. Yet, there is a palpable sexual tension with Christine in the way he moves his body, despite being in an outfit that makes one formless.

Musically, Roxmouth’s singing is equally full-bodied. He resists the temptation to growl or include a wispy timbre in order to make his voice sound more ghostly. There is attention to the way he shapes every note, and he really brings out the best of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score.

It is unfortunate that Christine (Meghan Picerno) appears to be the shortest amongst all the girls. While this is beyond Picerno’s control, it does look visually off and it takes some getting used to in order to settle into the romance between Christine and Raoul. Yet, there is a silver lining because as the Phantom entrances Christine in “Music of the Night”, the exceedingly tall Roxmouth looks like he is manipulating a doll, which enhances the scene.

However, she more than compensates for her short stature with her singing. Apart from hitting the really high notes ably, she lends a certain earnestness and longing as she calls out to her deceased father in “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again”. This is one of the rare times when I prefer that song to the other songs that Christine sings.

Matt Leisy as Raoul does not pale in comparison when it comes to singing, and the scenes between him and Christine are endearing.

While the show is every bit as extravagant and spectacular as we expect Phantom to be, there are some weaknesses. There are certain moments in which the cast can fill up a little more: there should be a little more tenderness mixed with fear when Christine returns Phantom his mask. When the Phantom appears, Raoul could have reacted a little more truthfully to his nemesis. Madame Giry (Melina Kalomas) could afford to be fiercer. The new owners of the Paris Opera House, Mssrs Firmin (James Borthwick) and André (Curt Olds) could be more comical and outlandish—imagine “Prima Donna” without the managers being drippingly sycophantic to Carlotta!

That said, the show is still a success on the whole and worth the night’s indulgence. To add a cherry on top, while the blocking is more or less fixed, assistant director Rainer Fried ensured to add in a regional reference as a little wink to the audience. (See if you can spot it when you attend the show.)

With its rousing score and tight pacing of the show, one can’t help but be swept up by the fantasy and intrigue that Phantom of the Opera has been inducing in its audiences for three decades.

Interviews
To find out more about the show, my collaborator and friend, Hawk Liu, has interviewed the creatives and Matt Leisy (Raoul).  He has also written his impressions of the show. Follow this  link for more information.

[Theatre Review] Reinterpreting the Dust of Dead Men

Cherilyn Woo reimagines Faust by putting humanity front and centre.

Photo: Crispian Chan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Reviews

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

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

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

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

[Theatre Review] Tussling Between Advocacy and Poetry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Reviews

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

[Theatre Review] Awkward Company

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Reviews

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

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

Late Company by Naeem Kapadia, Crystalworlds

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

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

[Theatre Review] A Classic That Should Not Be Timeless

The latest staging of Off Centre harks back to the original.

Photo: Tuckys Photography

Off Centre
The Necessary Stage
7 February 2019
Victoria Theatre
7–17 February 2019

Much ink has been spilled on Haresh Sharma’s Off Centre ever since its first staging in 1993. The reviews have two common threads: the play being on-target about mental health issues, and the tragedy of the play still being pertinent after so many years.

To add, it is also a sophisticated play which touches on issues of different economic backgrounds, societal expectations, Singapore’s competitive school system, and national service, without being tedious. Furthermore, the several instances in which Vinod or Saloma questioning the audience directly might be a little shocking for audiences back then, who are probably  used to having the fourth wall in place.

All of that is brought to the fore in the latest staging by The Necessary Stage, as director Alvin Tan stays true to the original staging, except for having a slightly more elaborate set by Wong Chee Wai.

Abdulattif Abdullah (Vinod) and Sakinah Dollah (Saloma) reprise their roles to much aplomb. Apart from the difficulty of embodying behavioural ticks brought on by severe depression and schizophrenia respectively, they have to constantly toggle between being in character and stepping out to narrate or address the audience. The ease at which both actors achieve this seem to signify that their characters are not too far from us.

Apart from their technical flair, both actors handle the emotional scenes with a great deal of sensitivity, giving the seemingly simple words much nuance.

While I would have liked for the play to be updated in terms of references and staging, I acknowledge the merits of being faithful to the original staging to mark the show’s anniversary and being a reference for students taking their O and N level exams.

Undoubtedly, most of us would feel uncomfortable about how relevant the play still is, but what is more troubling for me is that it is not as hard-hitting for the modern audience as it probably was for our counterparts in 1993.

With a more theatrically sophisticated audience, the direct questioning seems a little crude. Furthermore, both Adulattif and Sakinah seem to direct them at a general direction rather than directly at a particular audience member.  Thus, as Saloma pleads with the audience at the end, one is filled with dread that nothing is going to change.

Being timeless or evergreen is a compliment when describing most plays, but it is certainly not so for this one. One hopes that the play’s concerns will be deemed as dated and irrelevant by the time a theatre company considers another restaging.

Other Reviews

Off Centre is still spot on” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life! 

“Off Centre” by Jocelyn Chng, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

“[Review] Off Centre overwhelmed by nostalgia” by Sam Kee, ArtsRepublic.sg

“Review: Off Centre (2019) by The Necessary Stage” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

[Theatre Review] Check Point Charlie

What do you tell a twelve-year-old girl who has never seen the outside world?

Charlie           
Bhumi Collective
27 November 2018
Goodman Arts Centre, Block L, #01-46
20 November–7 December 2018

We have all entertained thoughts about what we would tell a Martian about us, if we were to meet it. My experience meeting Charlie is the closest you can get.

Charlie is a twelve-year-old girl, portrayed by Victoria Chen, who has been raised in a sterile room. For some unknown reason, one is given a fifteen-minute visitation, in which one is allowed to talk to her about anything. The only ground rules are not to touch her, or let her out of the room.

I should have heeded the advice of countless etiquette books of not arriving at someone’s place a little too early. Being the first in the shift, I arrived fifteen minutes beforehand, and “the woman”, as Charlie calls her, has yet to complete setting up. Throughout my wait, it felt that I was waiting to see Victoria Chen perform something, rather than waiting for this opportune moment to meet Charlie.

All of that changed when “the woman” opens the door to a spartan room with fluorescent lights. Charlie is lying on a mattress covered with a white bed sheet. Beside the mattress are scattered drawings, which Charlie later reveals that they are scenes from her dreams.

Eager to discuss as many topics as possible, I ask a series of questions to find out more about Charlie. I established that a “professor” visits her to check on her and give her more paper and markers, and a “woman” would usually deliver food and drink to her.

Before I knew it, Charlie turns the tables, “How do you spend your time?”

Explaining to her the concept of work and money sparks off a philosophical dialogue:

“Why would you do something you don’t like? Shouldn’t you do what makes you happy?”

“I like it for the most part, but as with anything, there are parts that you don’t like and you have to do it.”

“But why can’t you just do the parts that you like?”

“Unfortunately, to get ‘money’, you have to do both. Then, you use the ‘money’ to buy food and other stuff that makes you happy.”

Charlie is unconvinced—so am I.

Apart from being philosophical, she is incredibly attuned to the ebb and flow of conversation. There are moments when she simply keeps quiet and looks at you as you continuously explain things, while trying to assess whether she shares the same set of concepts as you do. Soon, Charlie unwittingly becomes your psychologist as you become increasingly aware of what matters to you based on the topics you chose.

Suddenly, the door opens and our time is up.

“Bye bye… Isaac.”

This takes me by surprise. I only told her my name at the very start, and she still remembers. The slight pause before saying my name sparks an internal struggle: What is stopping me from taking her out of the room? Who are these people that I have to listen to them? If I “rescue” her, how do I ensure that she is safe?

Before I could formulate any answers, I am already on my way to the train station.

It is odd how one could connect to a fictional child embodied by a wonderful actor. Who would have thought that I would benefit more from the conversation than Charlie?

Other Reviews

“Meeting Charlie was also seeing my inner self – A Reflection” by Sam Kee, Arts Republic

“Review: Charlie by Bhumi Collective” by Bak Chor Mee Boy