[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

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[Dance Review] More of a Fairy Tale than Andersen’s Original

Podesta’s feminist retelling of The Little Mermaid strips the tale of its interpretative possibilities.

Photo: Crispian Chan

The Immortal Sole

Edith Podesta

18 January 2018

Esplanade Theatre Studio

17–20 January 2018

We often describe something as a fairy tale to mean that it is fanciful or one-dimensional. If that is so, then Edith Podesta’s latest attempt to retell The Little Mermaid is more of a fairy tale than Hans Christian Andersen’s original yarn.

The initial portion of the original tale sees the mermaid visiting the world inhabited by human beings. She falls in love with a prince and saves him when a storm hits his ship. As the prince is unconscious, he does not know of her existence. On finding out that humans have an immortal soul, she seeks out a witch. Despite learning that she can become human exchange for an excruciating physical sacrifice, the mermaid consciously agrees to go through the pain.

Such a tale raises questions such as what it means to be human, and whether the mermaid made her choice because she loved the prince or she wanted immortality.

In The Immortal Sole, Podesta appropriates this tale as an allegory of what one must go through to become a woman.

As such, Little Mermaid (Koh Wan Ching) does not fall in love with the prince, but develops an unhealthy obsession with him, and wails lyrics to “Toxic” by Britney Spears to a Ken doll.

Instead of being given a choice, Podesta’s mermaid is cajoled by the witch and her posse (Ma Yanling, Dapheny Chen, and Yarra Ileto) to fit in, as the former endures the group campily lip syncing to Spears’ “Work Bitch”. A similar sequence, but this time with Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money”, occurs towards the latter half of the show, when the mermaid fails to make the prince fall in love with her.

In terms of movement vocabulary, while there are some beautiful synchronised movements in the shallow pool of water (wonderfully designed by Adrian Tan), we see the choreographic shorthand for internal turmoil—body convulsions and silent screams.

Unfortunately, they are not effective as they have been employed by one-too-many choreographers. Furthermore, these moments are not well-earned as the major conflicts in the story are diluted by the abovementioned lip sync sequences.

In another scene, having attained human legs, we see the mermaid being pressured by the witch and her posse to cock a hip and strike various poses—a patently obvious reference to body image issues that plague women. As the soundscape (also designed by Adrian Tan) intensifies, I thought the scene would culminate into a disclosure of something more profound. But all one gets is the use of strobe lighting, and we see snatches of the whole ensemble striking different poses in mid-air whenever the light flashes. This goes on for quite a while—a waste of technical wizardry and the performers’ athleticism.

In sum, The Immortal Sole is merely a reiteration of broad talking points, but it adds nothing to the discourse.

Worse still, Podesta strips Little Mermaid of her agency and, like a fish out of water, she is completely helpless against the seemingly malicious demands of society. Unlike the mermaid of the original tale, this mermaid hardly elicits any sympathy, and the show does a disservice to women out there who have truly struggled and pushed back.

Leaving the theatre, I realised that I would have a much better understanding of the difficulties women face in society by having a heartfelt conversation with my mother over supper.

More importantly, the ticket price of $27, which came out of my pocketbook, would have made for a rather hearty supper.

Other Reviews

“Notions of ideal beauty gone in a splash” by Germaine Cheng, The Straits Times Life! 

“M1 Fringe Festival 2018: The Immortal Sole by Edith Podesta (Review)” by Bak Chor Mee Boy