Interview with Lucas Ho on his new play, Frago

Photo: Joel Lim @ Calibre Pictures

Fresh from its successful re-staging of Faith Ng’s Normal, Checkpoint Theatre continues its 15th anniversary celebrations with Frago, a new play by associate artist Lucas Ho. 

Inspired by his reservist experiences, and billed as “a timely look at [an] intergral rite of passage for Singaporean men and the forging of bonds between those not bound by blood,” I caught up with Lucas to find out more about the play.

What inspired you to write the play? Was there a specific incident that happened in your life that compelled you to write it?

There wasn’t a specific incident that led to my writing of the play. But as I returned for reservist year after year, I observed some changes and shifts that men in my unit were undergoing as they began to make their way through their 20s into their 30s.  Some were getting married and settling down; some were contemplating career changes and further studies; and some were simply trundling along. I was fascinated by the different ways in which each of them grappled with adulthood and manhood.

Other playwrights such as Michael Chiang and Chong Tze Chien have also set their plays within the context of National Service to explore societal issues. What is it about the military context that makes it a fertile ground to explore such issues?

Tze Chien’s Charged used national service to examine uncomfortable truths about race relations in Singapore, while Michael Chiang’s Army Daze focused on enlistment as a rite of passage, and the confounding and absurd ways boys stumble into manhood. I love both plays dearly, and I think what drew them to write about national service is that it gathers men with apparently very little in common in the same space. And then these men have to go through some very intense experiences together, which brings certain things into sharper focus: their values systems, their long-held beliefs, their fears and their joys. And those things can greatly cleave people together or apart.

What happens when those men—who have had these very intense shared experiences —are made to come together and re-live them over and over again? How does age lead them to perceive their youth? How does their perception of each other shift? Those were things I was interested to explore. Frago is focused on the reservist experience. Reservists essentially do exactly what the full-time NSmen have to do in terms of physical activities and operational exercises, but in a very compressed amount of time every year, over a period of 10 years.

Are you very involved with the rehearsal process? Having watched the actors bring your script to life, has it made you see your own reservist experience in a different light?

We only just started rehearsals, but Huzir has requested that I be present especially during the early phases to serve as a “technical advisor” to the cast because the play is set specifically within an armoured infantry unit. After listening to the actors at our first table read, I found myself wishing that my reservist mates and I could have had deeper conversations, instead of skirting around talking about the things that truly mattered to us.

What advice would you give to someone who is about to enlist, or about to go through reservist for the first time?

NS is a rare opportunity to meet people you normally wouldn’t, beyond your socio-economic circle. So seek to get to know and understand those around you as much as possible. In this day and age, we really do need to listen to each other more, and if men put aside the anger and frustration so often associated with NS, we can pave the way for a more empathetic version of ourselves.

Frago runs from 13–23 July 2017 at Drama Centre Black Box. Tickets at $45 from Sistic

[Listing] Every Brilliant Thing by Bhumi Collective

2017 M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Award nominee Andrew Marko (Falling, Electra, RENT) stars in the Singapore premiere of 2014 and 2016 Edinburgh Fringe hit Every Brilliant Thing presented by Bhumi Collective, and directed by Mohamad Shaifulbahri.

Synopsis

“You’re six years old. Mum’s in hospital. Dad says she’s ‘done something stupid’. She finds it hard to be happy.

So you start to make a list of everything that’s brilliant about the world.

Everything that’s worth living for.

1. Ice Cream
2. Kung Fu Movies
3. Burning Things
4. Laughing so hard you shoot milk out your nose
5. Construction cranes
6. Me

You leave it on her pillow. You know she’s read it because she’s corrected your spelling.

Soon, the list will take on a life of its own.”

A new play about depression and the lengths we will go to for those we love.

Based on true and untrue stories.

For tickets, please visit Bhumi Collective.

[Theatre Review] SRT Right at Home with Children’s Theatre

peter-rabbit

A Peter Rabbit Tale

The Little Company, Singapore Repertory Theatre

25 February 2017

KC Arts Centre—Home of the SRT

24 February–14 April 2017

There could not be a better choice to celebrate The Little Company’s 15th anniversary than a tale of Peter Rabbit feeling ill at ease in his own home and seeking out a new life to lead, only to find out that home is where he truly belongs.

While the Singapore Repertory Theatre did not start out as a children’s company, the string of hits by The Little Company—especially with its most recent and stunning staging of Charlotte’s Web—has shown that it is completely at home with children’s theatre.

By entrusting a whole musical to a cast of young actors, safe for the lead, A Peter Rabbit Tale serves as a confident declaration of its expertise.

Such a bold statement is certainly not hot air as the actors prove that performing for children is not a matter of being energetic while portraying good or bad guys. The actors in the supporting roles display a wonderful sense of versatility at every turn.

One should admire the contrasts between Benedict Hew’s playful portrayal of Benjamin Rabbit and the prim and proper Thomas; Siti Maznah’s doting mother and the rock goddess of a Mrs Tiggy-Winkle; and Yvonne Low and Ng Yulin playing Peter Rabbit’s cutesy sisters as compared to the adventurous pair of squirrels. Of course, there is never a dull moment with Joshua Gui as the titular character as he hops along on various adventures, trying to fit into the environment and lifestyles of different animals.

However, the show did suffer from a few minor weaknesses: the volume of the microphones is a little soft; Alison Neighbour’s set could have been a touch more elaborate than a carpet of green and several brown poles as trees; the sequences in which Peter Rabbit gets into trouble could be slightly more intense; and Sarah Brandt’s book could have given Peter Rabbit more material to realise that home is the best place for him to be.  

That said, these are trifling faults and one’s enjoyment is not adversely affected in any way, even for a pedantic audience member such as yours truly.

Happy Birthday to The Little Company indeed.

[Theatre Review] Polarities Disguised as a Spectrum

prism-publicity-photo-2t

Prism

Toy Factory

23 February 2017

Drama Centre Theatre

23 February–5 March 2017

In the programme booklet, playwright Goh Boon Teck emphasised that “this is not an anti-development play.” However, one is forgiven if one thinks otherwise after actually enduring the show.

The premise of the play is simple, and it ostensibly allows the audience to tune in to the debate. Aman is in charge of facilitating the demolition of Surrounding City, a place that was built as a sanctuary from the ravages of progress. In the course of attempting to convince the current inhabitants to vacate the place, his interactions make him question his job and the merits of progress as prescribed by the authorities.

But burrow deeper and one does not find a debate, but a simplistic rant.

 First, a character decries the demise of culture: What happened to our traditional dances? Where is our traditional Asian clothing? Next, Aman encounters problems in his marriage. In a drunken stupor, he meets some of the inhabitants and is convinced to forgo rationality and indulge in his desires, as if both aspects can be so cleanly demarcated. Very much later, we are presented with a list of nations that were once colonial powers, and we encounter another binary; the colonial experience is completely bad, unlike the diversity and the cultures of Asia. This is followed very quickly by a litany of problems that plague Southeast Asia—Mrs Marcos and her shoe collection anyone?

Taking the trajectory as a whole, we are given the impression that the purity of Asia is soiled by modernity and Western influences. And this is meant to raise questions in an audience that is sitting on cushioned seats, watching an over-the-top performance in a state-of-the-art facility?

To compile the problem, the lack of rhetoric is coupled with a presentation of a society that is incoherent. Instead of giving thought to how the people of Surrounding City function, all we have is an anarchic celebration of diversity. The inhabitants hark back to abstract ancestors and practices without really elucidating what they will lose should the city be demolished. Furthermore, the walls of the city are brutish and they already look post-apocalyptic even before the demolition begins.

Additionally, Rei Poh’s direction seems intent on spending copious amount of time building up a disconcerting atmosphere, only for it to go nowhere. After all, there is only so much blocking and impressive technical effects can do to fill up a thin script.

To top it all off, Fir Rahman’s portrayal of Aman is cautious and tentative. After the first scene, one already senses that he is unconvinced about the merits of the government’s plans. When he recites the statistics about the building materials needed for the new facility, there is hardly any conviction and Fir fails to convey the significance of such precision. As such, his pivotal change of heart leading to his final soliloquy is not stark enough.

That said, if one can bear the whole show, one may catch certain artistic choices that bring delight. A stunning and exquisitely subtle moment occurs just before Aman is left alone for his final soliloquy. A door is thrown open and wads of cash are blown on to the stage as compensation to the inhabitants of Surrounding City. One of them picks up a stack and fans it out into a circle, signifying that the monetary compensation is nothing more than an offering to the dead.

Casting my eyes on the programme again, I cannot help but wonder why Rei Poh took the trouble, when the few hundred words in his directorial message about his neighbourhood engulfed in a sea of concrete is more impactful than the show.

Other Reviews

“Dystopian drama lacks insight” by Helmi Yusof, The Business Times

“Haunting tales of change” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life! 

“Review: Toy Factory’s “Prism” refracts social reality” by Akanksha Raja, Arts Equator

“Enduring Prism’s lamenting angry lecture on urban change” by Christian W. Huber, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

“Review: Prism by Toy Factory” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

[Theatre Review] More of a Roundabout

crossings

Crossings

Young & W!ld

15 February 2017

Centre 42 Black Box

15–19 February 2017

The latest batch of Young & W!ld trainees, under the tutelage of Rodney Oliveiro and Serena Ho, is almost half of the previous batch. This piqued my interest when I found out that Crossings is a double-bill as I had two assumptions. First, this is probably a deliberate choice rather than an expedient way to ensure everyone gets a chance to perform (a problem faced by most training programmes). Second, it fits the main theme as the audience will get to go down two different paths and have two different experiences due to the choices of various characters.

Alas, I am wrong about my first assumption.

In The Mother, The Son, and the Holy Ghost,  YouTuber and social justice warrior (SJW), Vix (Jasmine Blundell), decides that it is her calling to prevent an elderly lady (Natalie Koh)—suffering from dementia—from being kicked out of her house by her son (Aeron Ee). This is despite the fact that said lady accidentally caused her death.

What ensues is a cross between a comedy of errors, and a supposedly poignant story of the difficulties a caregiver has. Unfortunately, any potential that this piece might have is cut short, and the convenient ending feels like an apology for delaying the entrance of the actors in the next piece.

Such an apology is an utter waste as Jasmine Blundell is annoying but endearing as Vix. Aside from her engaging performance, she deliciously plays up every antic that popular YouTubers do in their videos. Natalie Koh pairs well with Blundell as the elderly woman. Koh strikes the right balance in portraying an elderly lady without resorting to the feeble stereotypes. Together, they could be an unlikely duo going on wacky adventures.

Unfortunately, the piece is derailed by the son, Boon (Aeron Ee), who is stiff and yells in every scene. Compared to Ee’s vein-popping histrionics, a pantomime dame feels Chekhovian.

Arbitrio starts off with another odd character. We encounter a Moses-like figure (Mel Bickham), seemingly at an audition, reciting Bible verses. In his desperate attempt to impress the unseen panel, he unfurls a story he has written about the twist and turns of a marriage.

This odd premise keeps the audience in anticipation for a good plot twist or revelation, but it does not materialise. While one’s interest is buoyed up by a series of jokes and wordplay, the trajectory of this piece feels like riding a donkey around a roundabout. The paper-thin dialogue is filler before an opportunity to put in the next punchline arises.

Additionally, the premise of an author figure writing and changing the story is puzzling. Does it mean that the choices of the characters do not really matter? Isn’t that going against the idea of the characters being at a critical crossroads in their lives?

Nothing seems to be carefully considered and promising aspects that the actors (Alison Bickham, Mel Bickham, Sharmaine Goh, Krish Natarajan) could have worked with—such as Chris (Krish Natarajan) being a bigot as he fumes about his friend coming out as gay just before his wedding—are not factored into the later scenes. Coupled with generic portrayals, and the intrusions of the author figure preventing the audience from being emotionally attached to any of the characters, Arbitrio is arbitrary.

While there is potential in this batch—and every bit of it should be encouraged—one should not let it discount the fact that this showcase is, on the whole, ho-hum.

Other Reviews

“We cross our bridges and we come to them and burn them behind us” by Casidhe Ng, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

“Review: Crossings by young & W!LD” by Nigel Choo, Bakchormeeboy.com

[Theatre Review] Actor – Utterly Brilliant

Photo: Ruey Loon

Actor, Forty  <<员四十>>

The Necessary Stage

Commissioned for Huayi Chinese Festival of Arts 2017

5 February 2017, 3 p.m.

Esplanade Theatre Studio

3–6 February 2017

What could be more narcissistic than staging a solo show about one’s life and career? At best, it is an extravagant CV. At worst, it is a navel-gazing alternation between woe-is-me and look-at-me.

To avoid that trap, playwright Haresh Sharma creates a character which can be described as a version of Yeo Yann Yann in a nearby possible world. For sentimental readers, Yeo plays a character that could have very well been her, had the stars aligned a wee bit differently.

This blend of fact and fiction is not merely a device to avoid criticisms of vanity, but it also allows inter-textual possibilities that capture a slice of the local and regional theatre, television, and movie industries of the ’80s and ’90s. To ground the play in the reality of the character, Sharma ensures that some of these references also reflect the main difficulty of the character dealing with the difficulties of having a child at 40, and how best to balance between motherhood and her acting career.

As such, we have a deliciously complex play that is shot through with meta-theatricality. One could spend hours teasing out the dynamics of life imitating art and vice versa within the reality of the play, and the references to the different roles that we play in various aspects of our lives.

Yet, at another angle, the show is Yeo’s performance CV. Every second of the show is solid proof that, given some time, there is absolutely nothing that she cannot do. Her energy and flexibility disguises her age, while her virtuosity celebrates decades of hard work and experience.

She seamlessly transits from a comical to a poignant moment as if she were casually throwing on a scarf. With Sharma’s writing and Alvin Tan’s direction being quite relentless in this aspect, a lesser actor—or any other actor for that matter—might end up tying a noose with that scarf.  She also manages to breeze through a whole range of characters, and display a sense of ease with a whole spectrum of acting styles.

Underlying all these is a keen sensitivity which is also manifested in the way she handles Cantonese, Hokkien, Mandarin (both standard and a colloquial way of speaking that is unique to Malaysians), and English. At this juncture, it is important to acknowledge Quah Sy Ren’s robust translations as we are predominantly hearing his words throughout the show.   

In the press conference scenes which bookend the show, Yeo’s character teasingly admonishes the press for being nosey about her personal life, but requests them to give the movie as much coverage and as many positive reviews as they can. Usually, I will bristle at such blatancy, but Yeo and The Necessary Stage (TNS) have stripped me of any reason to do so.

Indeed, Actor Forty is a splendid celebration of Yeo’s career and TNS’ 30th anniversary. The company now finds itself in the unenviable position of trying to match this show for the rest of their 2017 season. But of all problems that one could have, this is one that is most welcomed.

Other Reviews

“Theatre review: Actor, Forty affectionately welcome Yeo Yann Yann back to local stage after hiatus” by Adeline Chia, The Straits Times Life! 

“《演员四十》写给新加坡剧场的一封告白” by 邹文森, Lianhe Zaobao

“Nobody will write a review for you” by Jocelyn Chng, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

“一人分饰多文化的困惑 | REVIEW: ACTOR, FORTY” by Wong Chee Meng (黄子明), Theatrex Asia

“Actor, Forty” by Naeem Kapadia, Crystalwords

“[Review] Huayi Festival 2017: Actor, Forty by The Necessary Stage” by Nigel Choo, Bakchormeeboy.com

[Listing] Crossings by Young & W!ld

crossings

Every single day, we make choices – from the clothes we wear, to the food we eat. But, once in a while, we make the kind of big decisions that change everything. Step into the world of Crossings and get to know characters who have arrived at that critical crossroads in their lives. The choices they will make in this bold double-bill of original plays will change their journeys forever: setting them on the road to self-discovery… or self-destruction.

Vix, a social media darling, and a prickly, forgetful mother are thrown together in the aftermath of a tragic train accident. Vix resolves to help her elderly companion in the best way she knows how – through selfie sticks and videos. But how do you rescue someone who cannot even remember her own loved ones? And what happens when difficult truths come tumbling out? A strange tale of memories and lives shrouded in darkness, The Mother, The Son and the Holy Ghost explores what it takes to walk through the tunnel and into the light.

Happy and in love, Danielle and Chris are just about to tie the knot. But not everything is as it seems. Within their picture-perfect relationship lies a train-wreck of betrayal and abuse: from an unlikely affair to the sudden appearance of a former lover. As the champagne gets warm and the cake waits to be cut in Arbitrio, Danielle and Chris have to deal with the choices they made in the past, the emotional entanglements of the present and the uncertainty of the future.

Bold, inventive and thought-provoking, young & W!LD’s Crossings is a celebration of new Singapore voices and talent. The eight members of young & W!LD, from the ages of 19 to 24, came up with the stories, characters and themes that will feature in Crossings via improvisations and devising workshops. With their help, Rodney Oliveiro, their programme co-director, put together the final scripts of both plays.

“Just like these troubled characters, we all have to live with the decisions we make and their consequences,” explains Oliveiro. “I chose the main title of Crossings because it speaks to me of human wills and desires and ambitions – how we always bravely chug along, how we’re always busy with a new endeavour, even as we occasionally miss the subtle signs pointing towards our doom.”

The current cohort of young & W!LD embarked on their 18-month training programme in February last year. Since then, they have gained valuable experience in devising and performing their own original work. Following months of intensive workshops, they presented When S#!T Hits The Fam, an experimental piece that explored the trials and tribulations of family life, in May 2016.

“Over the past year, I’ve been most impressed by their openness, their willingness to try new things and their support for one another,” says Serena Ho, co-director of young & W!LD and Crossings. “I hope they will trust their voices and never stop surprising themselves.”

Crossings

15–19 February 2017

Centre 42, Black Box

Tickets at $30 from Peatix

[Theatre Review] Pretty Overstretched

Pretty Butch

Tan Liting

Part of M1 Singapore Fringe Festival

11 January 2017

Centre 42 Black Box

11–15 January 2017

Exploring what it means to be butch is an important conversation to be had in Singapore theatre. Apart from a few notable exceptions, plays exploring sexual identity have been dominated by men. And none of those exceptions are as specific and insightful as what Pretty Butch could be.

So imagine my disappointment when the teething problems of Tan Liting’s first full-length play fail to afford us enough bite to chew on this important issue.

Her workings on the page—a monologue, two duologues, and a sprinkling of ensemble sequences that are dream-like or absurd—reveal a novice learning from her predecessors. There is nothing wrong with that in itself and, taking the elements individually, Tan proves to be a competent playwright whose writing is engaging, funny, and poignant. However, rather than exploiting these elements to its full potential, her play feels like a mix-tape of what is characteristic of small-scale productions in Singapore.

Clearest case in point? Consider the lesbian couple (played by Farah Ong and Shannen Tan) signing up for a prenatal class. The clash with bureaucracy (a three-headed synchronised monstrosity, played by the rest of the cast), which insists that one must go for the “Daddy’s class” while the other, the “Mummy’s class”, and the eventual compromise is a campy nod to The Coffin is Too Big for the Hole. It is hardly a variation on a theme, but merely an addition of curlicues to the treble clef, crochets, and quavers.

Thematically, Tan offers variety: a butch (Deonn Yang) facing pressures from society and constantly being mistaken for a man; a couple of guys on holiday struggling with being masculine (Fadhil Daud and Henrik Cheng); and a lesbian couple going through pregnancy, with the “masculine” one of the pair carrying the child (Farah Ong and Shannen Tan).

Unfortunately, she could not quite handle the variety and ends up being overstretched. The two-hander with Fadhil Daud’s character struggling with perceptions of being effeminate while Henrik Cheng’s character struggles with gynæcomastia is the worst hit. The only struggle we see is both characters finding it difficult to admit their struggles to one another. That said, Tan should be credited for her perceptiveness in her idea of being butch and this could be a play on its own. Perhaps Handsome Butch or Pretty Hulk?

As for the other two stories, they mostly circle around issues of conformity and societal perceptions. Apart from the story about the two men, Tan could not get into the meat of the issues because—as a director—she chose to invest too much time on literal signifiers such as getting the cast to dress and undress.

When it comes to the performers, they are the best and worst thing of the production. Deonn Yang is nothing like her character as she gives an assured and self-aware performance. Aside from handling the difficult moments sensitively, she knows exactly how her body is perceived and plays with such perceptions to show the absurdity of societal norms.

Farah Ong and Henrik Cheng have the unenviable position of trying to keep the scene afloat as their less-than-stellar scene partners threaten to drag everything down.

It is refreshing to see Ong tackle a text-based work after having seen her in a couple of avant-garde productions. In this outing, she showcases her versatility as she spans the spectrum of playfulness, anxiety, and sorrow without overplaying the emotional beats.

This is in stark contrast to Shannen Tan, who presents a “dual-tonous” performance throughout the show. She either tries to connect with her scene partner by focusing on the playfulness rather than the emotional connection, or she tries to be emotionally wrought by becoming shrill and high-pitched. Yet, she is not quite the dead fish because she sheds two droplets of tears in one scene that immediately triggers sniffles in the audience who would think it is a heart-wrenching performance.

Cheng manages the delicate balance in which his character struggles with a physical condition (gynæcomastia) but, while it does affect his self-confidence, it is very different from the other character struggling with being called effeminate. The playwright does him a disservice by not fleshing out his character a little more. One looks forward to more of Cheng’s work, and hopes that he does not return to New York so soon after his graduation from the Intercultural Theatre Institute.

Fadhil Daud’s performance lies on two extremes. For the campy ensemble bits, he plays it to the hilt, and is endlessly entertaining. But for his main role of a young man trying to be masculine, he is as confused as his character as one is never sure what he wants to do with the text. Thus, we are left with him being extremely colourful or extremely bland.

Speaking of flavours, my comments may leave a bitter taste, but it is important to note that Tan has a good palette. She just has to choose a couple of ingredients, and cook it well.

More Information about Pretty Butch

Centre 42’s Boiler Room interview with Tan Liting

Other Reviews

“Navigating the conflict between self and social perceptions” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life! 

“Measure of a woman” by Helmi Yusof, The Business Times

“Pretty Butches, Walking Down the Fringe” by Cordelia Lee, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

Pretty Butch the profundity of queer anxiety” by Bernice Lee, Five Lines Asia

“M1 Fringe Festival 2017: Pretty Butch by Bak Chor Mee Boy

“Judity But(ch)ler” by Dumbriyani

[Listing] Prism by Toy Factory Productions

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Singapore’s leading bilingual theatre company Toy Factory Productions is proud to present its first production for 2017, PRISM.

Aman, an urban city development official, starts to question his work of demolishing old historical buildings to make way for new cityscapes. Faced with the task of informing the residents of the impending demolition of the city’s oldest heritage ‘The Surrounding City’, Aman experiences the wrath of the city, despair of her dwellers and confronts his personal ambivalence about the price of material gains.

A thought-provoking play that explores the limits of one’s threshold for pain and loss, PRISM spotlights the struggle between progression and development, and eroding a nation’s heritage and culture, through a storyline that will resonate with audience given the parallel in the current state of affairs locally.

An original script penned and directed by Toy Factory’s Chief Artistic Director Goh Boon Teck in 2003, PRISM was first staged as a grand multi-cultural theatrical performance that featured performing artistes and designers from six countries; including Japan, Indonesia and Malaysia. Today, the premise of the script remains relevant, especially in Singapore where development is slowly but surely usurping more local treasures.

In line with Toy Factory Productions’ unwavering commitment to provide the opportunity and platform for budding local talents, the upcoming PRISM is helmed by rising director Rei Poh; a consummate actor last seen in Toy Factory’s Titoudao, and features an all-Singaporean cast comprising several fresh faces led by Fir Rahman, who recently headlined the high-profile local feature film, ‘The Apprentice’ (Cannes Film Festival 2016).

Director Rei Poh shares his approach to his adaptation, “The story told is simple; one of progression versus loss, through a narrative that is familiar to most of us. I would like the audience to ‘feel’, more than ‘watch’ the show, since pain and loss are more deeply felt and conveyed through experience, than explained.”

PRISM

23 February–5 March 2017

Drama Centre Theatre

Tickets from $42 at Sistic

[Theatre Review] Lavish Panto-fusion

monkey_goes_west_2016_pic_5

Courtesy of W!ld Rice

Monkey Goes West

W!ld Rice

29 November 2016

Drama Centre Theatre

18 November–17 December 2016

W!ld Rice is well-known for adopting the pantomime, and infusing it with local references and jokes. With Monkey Goes West, the company pushes the envelope by adapting a Chinese legend into a British theatrical convention, while bringing in Asian practices such as martial arts, Chinese opera, and shadow puppetry as narrative devices.

The plot revolves around Ah Tang (Joshua Lim), a teenager who has lost his mother and has to live with Uncle Moo (Darius Tan), Auntie Fanny (Chua En Lai), and their spoilt child, Xiao Hong (Kimberly Chan). Feeling unloved and missing his mother on her death anniversary, he runs away from home and goes to Haw Par Villa.

Falling asleep, he falls into a dream state and he finds himself assuming the role of the monk in Journey to the West as he supposedly attempts to travel from Haw Par Villa to Jurong West with the help of his disciples: Wu Kong (Sugie Phua), Pigsy (Frances Lee), and Sandy (Siti Khalijah Zainal). Knowing that any journey made within Singapore’s borders is physically unimpressive, playwright Alfian Sa’at cleverly turns it into one of self-transformation.

First staged in 2014, this ambitious show could have gone the way of most fusion cuisines; a hodge-podge of ingredients that form a veneer of the exotic, but they do not go together and one is left with an odd aftertaste. What keeps this production together is director Sebastian Tan’s methodical conceptualisation of where the elements should go.

Alfian manages to serve up a delicious fare of innuendos, satire, and jokes which send the audience rollicking in their seats, while offering an important lesson of self-control to the children. Having entertained the audience and building up their expectations for most of the show, he falters toward the end with a slightly trite resolution in order for the moral of the story to be delivered. Additionally, the headstrong nature of Sandy which is in the original tale and key to the moral of the story is not apparent.

With the script being resolutely steeped in the pantomime tradition, Elaine Chan’s music enhances that with its offering of cabaret-style tunes with the occasional Chinese motif. The songs were well thought out and it gives space for every cast member to display their vocal chops.

The Chinese opera sequences and shadow puppetry figure in the fight scenes as the disciples, mainly Wu Kong, have to battle various monsters and demons (Darius Tan, Chua Enlai, and Kimberly Chan double up as King Bull, Princess Iron Fan, and Red Boy respectively) along their journey. There, these practices are left as is with traditional Chinese percussion playing in the background. As it impossible for the actors to ramp up the intensity of the Chinese opera sequences without years of training, movement coach and fight choreographer Gordon Choy circumvents this limitation by introducing farcical sequences that play to the actors’ strong sense of comic timing.

Top it off with Wong Chee Wai’s lavish sets, sleek transitions, dazzling stage effects, and some of the most versatile actors in the industry, Monkey Goes West is a sheer treat for the senses.

With this show being a milestone for W!ld Rice’s pantomime tradition, one wonders if it is possible for the elements from different cultures to be more intertwined without it being an incomprehensible pastiche. All the more reason to look forward to Mama White Snake, W!ld Rice’s next pantomime which draws from another Chinese tale, Madam White Snake.

Other Reviews

“Making fun (of)” by Jeremiah Choy, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

“An ‘A’ Production — Artistic, Amusing, and Adept!” by Beverly Yuen, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

Monkey Goes West: Embark On The Happiest & Funniest Journey To (Jurong) West” by Reuel Eugene, Reuel Writes

“[Review] Monkey Goes West by Natalie Danielle, Campus Magazine

“Review: Monkey Goes West by W!ld Rice” by Bak Chor Mee Boy