[Theatre Review] Puppet Origin Stories by The Finger Players: Of Remembrance and Reïnvention

Courtesy of The Finger Players / Photo: Tuckys Photography

Puppet Origin Stories
The Finger Players
9 November 2022
One-Two-Six Cairnhill Arts Centre
9–13 November 2022

The site of Cairnhill Arts Centre was originally an estate surrounded by nutmeg plantations. The building was also once Anglo-Chinese School and the Teachers’ Training College, among other things.

I am aware of those facts not because I am well-versed in local history, but it was shared with us by the co-artistic directors of The Finger Players, Ellison Tan and Myra Loke, as the prelude to Puppet Origin Stories, a triple bill of performances by artists from various disciplines using puppets from the company’s repository.

With that rather surprising prologue, Puppet Origin Stories is more than a puppetry experimentation or reïnvention; it is also about remembrance and the company’s way of looking back at its history. 

Remembrance and reïnvention are present in all three works.

Chai Jean Yinn as Shadow (left) while Liew Jia Yi manipulates Peng (right) / Photo: Tuckys Photography

In “Jabber”, movement artist Hairi Cromo takes his childhood experiences and creates a piece whereby a boy interacts with a strange creature, which is a physical manifestation of his unresolved feelings. 

Liew Jia Yi deftly handles Peng, the puppet of the boy, by slipping into his feet like slippers while manipulating his hands and head through the rods attached to them. Liew’s movement work is quite detailed as she successfully creates nuances in the boy’s movements such as creating the illusion of distance as the boy greets his friends when they pass him by in school.

Chai Jean Yinn plays the teacher, who strips the boy of his prefect position after he was caught playing a fool in class, and the amorphous creature, Shadow, that haunts the boy. The former is portrayed by wearing a mask, while the latter is portrayed by Chai wearing a headscarf made from different cloths and an oval cookie tin for a face.

Apart from the sweeping movements which creates a ghost-like quality in the creature, Chai also haunts the boy by collapsing her body which lends the creature an amorphous quality.

While one can see the resemblances to Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, which is one of the main inspirations for the piece, it does not have enough thrust in which the boy is working through his feelings. As it stands the boy has a slight revelation and asks the creature to leave him. 

One hopes that this piece will be developed further in future and, if it could really tell the story from the boy’s point of view, it will fulfil the main goal of emphasising the importance of adult’s acknowledging the feelings of children.

Tan Beng Tian visits Ah Ma (handled by Yazid Jalil) in a museum / Photo: Tuckys Photography

“AH MA” by film-maker Tan Wei Ting remembers the past and invents a (hopefully) fictional future when puppetry is no longer practised, and it exists only as artefacts inside a museum display. A puppet, Ah Ma, is chosen to be preserved, but when Tan Beng Tian realises that Ah Ma is unhappy, a museum heist ensues.

Ah Ma is a rod puppet created for A.i.D, Angels in Disguise (2010). As she is suffering from dementia in the original production, she has a jewel inside her head that represents her memories. With a flick, expertly done by a puppeteer, the jewel is flung out, and Ah Ma loses her memories.

The theme of remembrance manifests in many ways. In the context of the piece, will we suffer a kind of cultural dementia as our performance practices die out from the lack of support? Are we truly remembering a performance tradition if it is no longer practised? Is curation a kind of reïnvention?

Tan Wei Ting traverses the past and the imagined future through the interplay of archival footage of A.i.D and having Tan Beng Tian—veteran puppeteer who was involved in handling Ah Ma in A.i.D, and has been with The Finger Players since the beginning—perform in the piece as she navigates a world in which puppetry is dead.

Yazid Jalil doubles up as the bureaucratic curator and the grumpy, but sympathetic security guard who assists in the heist. He displays versatility in both puppetry work and acting as he has to switch characters at a (sometimes literal) drop of a cap.

The duo also showcased some sensitive puppeteering. As the lines of Ah Ma are delivered through a voiceover, the timing has to be absolutely right with details such as breathing or crying added in.

Apart from a sense of poignancy, there is also a sense of child-like playfulness. While Ah Ma steals the show, there is also some—for a lack of a better term— “informal puppetry” going on. 

Tan would sometimes hold and move the curator’s spectacles or security guard’s cap while Yazid delivers his lines before quickly changing characters. This harkens back to the games of make-believe we play as children—perhaps carelessly moving a soft toy while giving it voices might be our very first contact with puppetry.

Mitchell Fang (left) and Deonn Yang (right) handle Moon Baby as it stands on the body of Becca D’Bus / Photo: Tuckys Photography

In line with the provocative title, “Suck Sweat Dry, Baby!”, drag queen Becca D’Bus does not hold back and questions the premise of the whole endeavour. In her first monologue of the piece, she asks what is there to remember for a company with slightly over 20 years of history, and suggests that something only has monetary value if it has a history. 

While that might be incredibly cynical, one cannot help but wonder if there is a kernel of truth when most arts companies are so reliant on state funding, and they have to constantly justify their value to stay afloat.

Beyond the usual drag act of lip-syncing to Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire, the provocation continues in a pastiche of scenes with different puppets. 

In one scene we see Moon Baby hiking up Bukit Timah Hill, represented by the contours of D’Bus’ corseted body. In the course of people-watching, a taxonomy of hikers is created, as Moon Baby wonders about human behaviour and the image that we are trying to portray to others.

In another scene, we see Sponge Girl inadvertently hooking up with Samsui Woman. And we soon see both puppets laying on top of each other while Deonn Yang and Mitchell Fang, who are in full drag, create sound effects that suggest copulation.

In most puppetry traditions, the puppets are often seen as performers themselves and are often treated with a sense of reverence. As such, it might be initially uncomfortable to see the puppets in this new context, which veers into the profane. 

But it is the same reverence that allows us to imbue them with human qualities, and the provocation soon becomes an exploration of human frailties and desire.  

One leaves the piece unsure of what one has just witnessed, but there is a tacit understanding of the need for human connection. 

With Puppet Origin Stories set to be a yearly fixture, the premise and overall direction of the first instalment is a good start. I cannot wait to see how this platform evolves in years to come. 

Other Reviews

Theatre review: Open-ended challenges in Puppet Origin Stories that linger” by Charmaine Lim, The Straits Times Life! (Review is behind a paywall.)

“关于守护的问题——观 ‘Puppet Origin Stories'” by 杨明慧, 剧读 thea.preter

到经禧艺术中心作客—— 观《偶起源故事@126》” by 梁海彬, 剧读 thea.preter

Further Reading

[Interview] Puppet Origin Stories: Same Puppets, New Stories — My interview with the creators of the pieces.

Digital Programme of Puppet Origin Stories

Puppet Origin Stories: Peng — An article about how Peng, which is featured in “Jabber”, came to be.

Puppet Origin Stores: Faceless Maiden — An article about how Faceless Maiden, which is featured in “Jabber”, came to be.

Puppet Origin Stories: Ah Ma — An article about how Ah Ma, which is featured in “AH MA”, came to be.

Puppet Origin Stories: Moon Baby — An article about how Moon Baby, which is featured in “Suck Sweat Dry, Baby!”, came to be.

Puppet Origin Stores: Sponge Girl — An article about how Sponge Girl, which is featured in “Suck Sweat Dry, Baby!”, came to be.

Puppet Origin Stories: Samsui Women — An article about how Samsui Woman, which is featured in “Suck Sweat Dry, Baby!”, came to be.

[Theatre Review] Pretty Butch — 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 “duotonous” 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