[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 reaction 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

Advertisements

[Listing] Fun Home by Pangdemonium!

To round off their 2017 Season, Pangdemonium is performing FUN HOME, the stunning musical about a family that’s nothing like yours and exactly like yours.

Based on Alison Bechdel’s best-selling graphic memoir, the piece interacts with Bechdel at three different ages. Moving between past and present, it reveals her unique childhood, a growing understanding of her own sexuality and how she handles her uniquely dysfunctional family. FUN HOME is a gripping portrayal of a daughter’s determination to connect with her volatile, brilliant father whose temperament and secrets have defined her family and her life.

“FUN HOME is an exhilarating, heart wrenching, and moving musical which will resonate with anyone who has ever felt different, even within their own family. The story—based on real life experiences of Alison Bechdel—is a roller-coaster of comedy and tragedy, and the songs are sublimely beautiful. Be prepared for a truly unique and unforgettable musical theatre experience.” said Adrian and Tracie Pang, Artistic Directors of Pangdemonium.

Winner of five Tony Awards, including Best Score and Best Book, the haunting melodies of Jeanine Tesori and poetic lyrics of Lisa Kron set a foundation for this refreshingly honest musical.

Starring Adrian Pang, Monique Wilson, Nikki Muller, Elena Wang, Benjamin Kheng, Gail Belmonte, Chloe Choo, Elly Gaskell, Aria Zhang, Damien Weber, and Bjorn Haakenson.

Named Best Musical of the Year by the New York Times, FUN HOME is a daring and innovative work about seeing your parents through grown up eyes. The Singaporean debut of this intimate and emotional theatrical experience is not to be missed!

FUN HOME runs from 29 September–15 October at the Drama Centre Theatre, Rated R18, Tickets from Sistic

[Theatre Review] Not Totally Effective

The Effect

n.b. Out of professional courtesy, I would like to inform my readers that I am currently helping Checkpoint Theatre to archive one of their upcoming productions. However, I strongly believe that this does not affect the integrity of my critique. None of the actors in The Effect are involved in the project I am working on.

The Effect

Pangdemonium!

13 March 2016, 3pm

Victoria Theatre

25 February–13 March 2016

Audiences and colleagues who have watched The Effect before me rightly pointed out that one of the themes of the play is about the nature and reality of love. However, if we were to look at the bigger picture, the play poses a more fundamental philosophical question: Can the self be reduced to the workings of the brain?

Prebble expounds on this question through two parallel relationships. On one hand, we have Tristan Frey (Linden Furnell) and Connie Hall (Nikki Muller) who are test subjects of the antidepressant drug, RLU37. When they fall in love, questions are raised over whether it is real or is it an effect of the drug.

On the other hand, we have Dr Lorna James (Tan Kheng Hua) and Dr Toby Sealey (Adrian Pang), researchers administering this drug trail. Apart from their professional relationship, this duo once had a turbulent romance.  James suffers from depression and Sealey wants to her to take the drug. James is reluctant as, apart from her doubts about its efficacy, she believes that medication does not solve everything.

And it is in the interactions of the couples that lie the greatest merit and demerit of any play that poses philosophical questions.  The former is seen in the Frey-Hall romance as the questions arise through the plot and conflicts the couple has.

The latter is seen in the doctors’ relationship as Prebble stages a flat-out debate with both characters expressing opposing arguments. Granted that Prebble does attempt to flesh out a past history between the doctors, the argument could still take place even if they were madly in love with each other. As if the main philosophical question is not complex enough, the doctors also debate about the ethics of marketing drugs.

As for the effect of the acting, the actors are competent but not impressive. Furnell and Muller wonderfully feed off each other’s energy and are completely at ease on stage. However, Muller adopts an accent that, while believable, restricts how she expresses herself. She sounds perpetually excited and there is hardly a modulation in tone. While Tristan Frey is Irish, Furnell makes the wise decision of adopting a very light Irish lilt to play his character. This gives him more space to work with the demands of the scene.

Oddly enough, Tan Kheng Hua and Adrian Pang decided not to adopt an English accent which makes it rather odd given that both actors are more than capable to do so. More importantly, they mar an otherwise good performance by not being able to sustain the energy in the quieter moments.  Even when Dr Lorna James unravels, Tan’s portrayal is too inward that I found it difficult to sympathise with her. Instead, it feels like I am observing a curiosity from afar.

While many productions do create multiple physical and psychological spaces within the confines of the same set, the division is not clear enough in this production. For some reason, it feels rather crowded when all four actors are on stage. Furthermore, even when the set is altered to suggest a different space,—such as when the doors of the lab are tilted diagonally outwards to suggest the open windows of an abandoned asylum—Furnell and Muller do not make the effort to create the sense of a new space.

That said, set designer Wai Yin Kwok must be praised for the futuristic and clinical set. This is complemented by Guo Ningru’s sound design of static noises or the humming of the machinery which create an unsettling atmosphere.

If my review were akin to the results of a drug trail, it would be what Dr Lorna James had expected: Some positive effects but these are ultimately inconclusive.

Other Reviews

“This is your brain on love: Pangdemonium’s The Effect by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life! 

“Theatre Review: The Effect by Adibah Isa, Buro 24/7

“Is It Love, Or Is It The Dopamine: The Effect by Adelyn Tan, Word of Mouth – Raffles Press

“Theatre review: Romantic prescription in Pangdemonium’s The Effect by Naeem Kapadia, Today

“The Effect of love — in 4D” by Jeremiah Choy, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

“The Effect of Love and Other Drugs” by Seewah Ho, What’s Next

[Theatre Review] A Decent and Modest Epic

The LKY Musical

Metropolitan Productions

30 July 2015

Sands Theatre, Marina Bay Sands

21 July – 16 August 2015

To call The LKY Musical a biopic about Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, is a misnomer. It is a portmanteau consisting of biography and motion picture. However, if we were to exercise some poetic license and see it as a biographical epic, it is somewhat apt.

I say somewhat because it spans an epic sweep of historical events but its staging does not match up to it. For starters, the Sands Theatre is badly designed. With its small stage, grey interiors, and bad acoustics, it feels like someone decided to convert a warehouse into a “theatre” on a whim. It is clearly designed for cheap entertainment and artistry is a mere afterthought—like belching after drinking too much beer from a plastic cup.

To deal with space constraints, set designer takis makes use of every inch with a three-level structure that has six rooms. Toss in sliding screens with projections and the audience is whizzed from a shelter where rickshaw pullers reside to Lee’s residence in Cambridge.

Yet, ingenuity can only go so far.

The actors are visibly hemmed in by whatever remains of downstage and the size of each room. To make matters worse, the major events from Lee at Raffles leading up to his time in Cambridge zipped past at breakneck speed. The ensemble could hardly settle into their roles and it is merely a notch above someone walking across the stage with a flashcard saying “Japanese Occupation” and sounds of bombs going off in the background.

Despite these flaws, this musical scores enough brownie points to warrant more than two hours of your time if you have some to spare.

Adrian Pang’s versatility truly knows no bounds. While he does not adopt every single behavioural tick of Lee Kuan Yew, he exudes Lee’s unmistakable presence when delivering a political speech. With his body tilted at an angle and chest puffed up, he marshals voters to the polling station as he goes head on against his former comrade turned opponent, Lim Chin Siong.

Benjamin Chow’s Lim Chin Siong certainly matches up to Pang’s Lee. Rather than play the radical hothead as described in history textbooks, Chow’s Lim possesses political cunning and daring which makes him a formidable opponent of Lee Kuan Yew. Chow must also be commended for his ability to maintain his Chinese accented English when singing without compromising on his diction.

Radhi Khalid’s Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaya’s Prime Minister, is a nice counterpoint to Lee Kuan Yew. Khalid’s gentle cadences as he glides effortlessly through his lines is contrasted with Pang’s pointed attack—an indication of Lee’s no-nonsense approach to politics. While Tunku’s insistence on playing poker rather than discussing politics may be superficially read as insouciance, it is a gentle insistence on the incompatibility of Lee’s egalitarian ideals and Tunku’s racial politics. To discuss it further would unnecessarily sour the already tenuous relationship.

Other notable performers are Sebestian Tan as Teong Koo the optimistic rickshaw puller and Vester Ng as Ng Kai, the naïve and eager union leader of the rickshaw pullers. While Edward Choy (Goh Keng Swee), Dayal Gian Singh (Rajaratnam), and Tan Shou Chen (Toh Chin Chye) gave credible performances in their supporting roles, it is a waste that their characters are not developed further which is an injustice to the legacies of these giants in Singapore history.

Sharon Au as Lee’s wife, Kwa Geok Choo, is clearly doing her best. Unfortunately, her best is not enough as her studied approach and weak singing makes it look as if the decision to cast her is to boost ticket sales by luring her fans to the theatre.

While Dick Lee’s music heightens the atmosphere at important points, the styles are too varied for one to discern a particular motif that defines the musical. Stephen Clark offers witty lyrics such as Lee describing one of the reason he loves his wife is that she is supportive and often makes her ideas seemed like his. However, due to the dismal acoustics of the venue or incompatible levels on the sound console, one will miss it unless an effort is taken to listen intently.

With Lee Kuan Yew’s recent demise and the excitement of the upcoming election, the musical is inextricably tangled over concerns of its historical accuracy and intent. My colleagues seem to adopt either an apologist stance or deem that the musical as an unsuitable genre.

The LKY Musical depicts events as it happened generally and is careful not to over-valourise the man—it neither beats the drum of the official narrative nor poses a distinct challenge to it. Additionally, it has no pretentions of showing “The Singapore Story” which is made abundantly clear through its uninspiring title. As an art work, it generally entertains and I have detailed where it is lacking.

The performing arts cannot replace the work of the historians which is where you should go for nuances and interpretations of events. At the very least, one hopes that it sparks an interest in those whose only acquaintance with the narrative is through the stilted words of a heavily regulated history textbook.