Teater Ekamatra presents Baca Skrip: #IkanCantik

The third instalment of Baca Skrip features Aidli Mosbit’s Ikan Cantik which meditates on issues such as the historical (mis)representation of women; gender roles and sexuality; women in popular culture and the biases; and privileges of female power dynamics. 

To find out more about the processes that go into present an online reading via Zoom, I interviewed some of the actors involved (Farah Ong, Suhaili Safari, Rafeyah Abdul Rahman, Elnie S. Mashari) in the presentation. 

Could you give us some insights as to what the rehearsal process was like?

Farah Ong: Reading. Just listening to the voices and tapping into those memories from a long time ago, and re-creating some experiences. There are a lot of technical details involved: checking of sound, angling of camera, and testing the intensity and colour of the lighting.

Suhaili Safari: The rehearsal process has been very technical when it comes to setting up our space every night. Having it being consistent especially with lighting and sound makes it easier for us to make a good show.

Rafeyah Abdul Rahman: What goes on behind the scenes is amusing. My rehearsal space is filled with costume and makeup on the right and IT peripherals, wastepaper basket (and snacks ssshhhh) on the left. The blinding ring light is in front of my laptop. Being older, presbyopia is a bane. Otherwise, getting on board and switching into character is easier than connecting through zoom on a weak wireless connection.

Elnie S. Mashari: Rehearsals started a month ago, with five or six sessions lasting two hours each. It was pretty refreshing to get into a “rehearsal” mode after months of not being actively involved in a production. It took a couple of sessions to get into the flow of the rehearsal process. It  would take 30–45 minutes to set up the technical elements  before the actual read. The session would end with a round of notes. While we plan for our rehearsals to last for two hours, it would usually stretch to three, which is fine as we had nowhere to go except to sleep after that. 

What were some challenges you face, especially when you are not in the same room with the rest of the cast and crew?

Farah Ong: The technical part is really challenging. The internet connection determines how you’re gonna sound, whether it’s going to lag. So, it takes a lot more energy and focus and listen. It’s listening plus something else.

The satisfaction is completely different, of course. Rehearsing on Zoom takes away the joy of human connection. So, your brains got to work double and triple hard to process.

Suhaili Safari: While needing a consistency in the quality of lighting and sound, sometimes we have to deal with unannounced noise bleeding from our environments because we are playing in our own homes . We also have to work with the latency of visual and sound when our network gets wonky and our Bluetooth earphones run out of power. Basically, we got to get our technology right at its peak at all times which is the main challenge of making online live shows. Besides that, having it directed in a tinier space made me feel claustrophobic, but that’s only because I had to think outside the conventions of stage playing and more of working within the idea of probably what film/TV would entail like eye line in film acting.

Rafeyah Abdul Rahman: Synergy. But fortunately, it’s a read. Nevertheless, the lag in connection requires a lot of waiting and patience from cast and crew. What’s interesting is that we get to use digital apps to get things up and make things work when otherwise it’ll purely be us on stage.

Elnie S. Mashari: I guess getting into a robust or an active discussion is hard because rehearsals were done over Zoom, and we we would not be able to hear each other at all if we accidentally talk over each other. It is like being in class, where we need to raise our hands before we share our opinion. 

Has this process made you look at the piece that you are involved in a new way? How so?

Farah Ong: It’s interesting that all these issues are probably still happening now. Just in a different language and vocabulary. The root of the problem and the issues are still the same. I guess humanity hasn’t evolved that much, you know…This whole Zoom process makes me miss the actual rehearsal and creation process of making theatre in general.

Suhaili Safari: Well, this is my first time working with #ikancantik as opposed to the rest who are revisiting it. Finding relationships with characters of actors I’ve not worked with before from behind my laptop screen made me imagine myself in a fishbowl and talking to fishes from other fish bowls. 

If this is rehearsed as a show rather than a script read, I wonder what dynamics will need to be in place to highlight relationships of characters without having them meet in the same space?

Rafeyah Abdul Rahman: It gets cast and crew to think of solutions that befit a zoom read. We have to lift the words off the script and how to do that without ‘acting’? Mastering the text and improve on eloquence—thus providing depth for each word, phrase, and sentence. The script still feels light-hearted but belies the weight of so much research, careful representation and deliberation.

Elnie S. Mashari: It definitely opens up a new perspective into performing for Zoom  or acting for a live-stream. The stage version allowed us to express ourselves more with body language and gestures. For Zoom, we need to capture our emotions and intention within that single frame. Using only our voice, facial expressions and upper body reactions. This gives me the tool to access insights to the character’s psyche and the sensitivity required in the delivering of the lines. I think that’s the main new change I experienced.

In addition, 22 years have passed. Our collective years of experiences have provided new insights to the issues raised in the 1998 production. We have now a bigger pool of information and experiences to support our choices for the characters.


Baca Skrip: #ikancantik will be presented via Zoom on 24 July 2020 at 8 p.m. Tickets at $10 from Peatix.

[Theatre Review] Dancing Beautifully on a Knife’s Edge

Potong
Teater Ekamatra
22 March 2018
Malay Heritage Centre Auditorium
21–25 March 2018

Theatre exists in many guises and is constantly undergoing tremendous amounts of change. Despite the constant flux in tastes and aesthetics, a common aspect that often recurs is the theatre-makers’ appetite for addressing social issues.

However much we must applaud their valiant efforts, we often get pieces that screech at the choir; spread thin in trying to cover as many issues as possible; or renege on its promise to present, as Scottish theatre critic Joyce McMillan puts it, “a new and original version of the world.”[1]

Johnny Jon Jon’s Potong is none of these. Not only does he avoid the usual traps, his ambitions of addressing issues of dementia, traditions, and gender identity in a single play is akin to navigating a minefield on a pogo stick, while being blindfolded, with one leg in a cast, and his dominant hand being tied behind his back. For some reason, he navigates it without a scratch.

His plot revolves around Adam, who is of mixed heritage, being asked by his mother to return to Singapore from Australia to go through two rites of passages: circumcision and National Service. He is tasked to find his uncle, who turned out to be a transvestite, and he also discovers that his grandmother is suffering from dementia. Apart from dealing with the culture shock and finding out about his extended family, Adam struggles with fulfilling his mother’s wishes. Perhaps the biggest shock would be finding out the actual reason behind his mother insisting that he goes to Singapore, and geographical distance does not preclude similarities in circumstances.

Despite the gravity of the issues addressed, Johnny exhibits his razor-sharp wit in filling the lines with double entendres, jokes, and quick retorts. Apart from creating a certain sense of familiarity amongst the characters, the levity of the lines eases the audience into poignant moments, such as the phone conversations between Leha (Adam’s mother) and Salleh (Adam’s uncle), where the latter urges the former to return to Singapore; to return home.

Additionally, they prevent the audience from crumbling into an emotional wreck, thereby abandoning reflections on some of the unanswerable questions implied by the play. For example, who is Salleh given that his mother rejected him when he dresses up as a woman, but having been stricken with dementia, recognises him as her daughter, Leha, and effectively forgetting her son?

Despite the complexity and the hard-hitting themes of the play, the actors took their roles with a certain lightness of touch.

Having largely seen her in abstract and devised pieces, Farah Ong as Leha is refreshing. The subtlety in her approach gives one a sense that not all is well, but one only knows what that is towards the end. This makes the show all the more poignant, and it is an excellent display of Ong’s versatility and maturity in her craft.

Salif Hardie’s earnest portrayal of Adam is a nice counterweight to the general sombre atmosphere surrounding Leha and Salleh. It is interesting to see the evolution of his innocence to realising the gravity of the situation and the weight of responsibilities that he has to bear.

While Dr Dini, the circumcision specialist, is much less flamboyant than Munah Bagharib’s YouTube persona, she attacks the role with a sparkle in her eye. Munah’s knack for comic timing is apparent and her repartee in contrast to a bemused Adam provide a much-needed interlude to the heavy play.

Mohd Fared Jainal as Salleh really hits all the emotional buttons. He threatens to reduce audience members to a sobbing mess whenever he speaks to his sister or explains to Adam about the family situation. The tenderness mixed with a tinge of wistfulness and resignation speaks of the sacrifices a caregiver makes, and of duty and love that drives him to carry on. At the same time, his campiness when in drag injects much hilarity in the first half of the play. However, the novelty does wear off a little and it almost teethers on being monotonous later on in the play.

At this juncture, it is apparent that realising the playwright’s vision is no mean feat. Not only did director Irfan Kasban realise Johnny’s vision, he deserves additional plaudits for his for having the actors break the moment and exiting or transiting each scene with a certain slowness. This artifice not only signifies time passing as a character despite the actor exiting and entering the scene within minutes of each action, it also creates a certain porousness within the static set. This allows different characters in different settings to exist within the same space.

That said, some of these moments of rapture from the generally naturalistic nature of the scenes are not well-timed. As a result, some of the most emotional moments were prematurely cut off, and the actors have to build the emotional trajectory from scratch again. Despite the minor flaw, the actors did manage to do so, which is a testament of their skill.

Potong (which means cut in Bahasa Melayu, by the way) it any way you like, this show is truly a gem of a play. It is abominable that Johnny Jon Jon has suggested in the programme notes that this might be his last full-length play. One hopes that his muses make haste and compel him to write another.

[1] McMillan, Joyce. “Jotters.” In Theatre in Scotland: A Field of Dreams., edited by Philip Howard, 50. London, UK: Nick Hern Books, 2016.

Other Reviews

Teater Ekamatra’s Potong: When ties to the past are cutby Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life!

‘Potong’ by Teater Ekamatra: Of Kin and Skinby Akanksha Raja, Arts Equator

Review: Potong by Teater Ekamatraby Bak Chor Mee Boy

[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 “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

[Theatre Review] Turning Up The Heat on Politics

STF2016 GRC by Teater Ekamatra pic 2

Courtesy of Teater Ekamatra

n.b. I would like to inform my readers that I am currently a project-based intern with Checkpoint Theatre for their upcoming production, The Last Bull: A Life in Flamenco. However, I strongly believe that this does not affect the integrity of my critique. Views expressed are my own.

Geng Rebut Cabinet
Teater Ekamatra
Commissioned by W!ld Rice for Singapore Theatre Festival 2016
14 July 2016
Flexible Performance Space, Lasalle College of the Arts
14 — 24 July 2016

Neither our theatre scene nor playwright Alfian Sa’at is a stranger to political plays. But what the avid theatre-goer would have been used to is a play that focuses on a particular issue, and offers a barrage of criticisms; some vociferous, while others are comical.

In Geng Rebut Cabinet (GRC), we see Alfian Sa’at unfurling his list of criticisms of government policies, especially those which affect different racial groups, and frame all of them within the boundaries of a political farce. From the lack of Malays in major military roles; to the lack of Malay representation in local popular culture; to the media releasing negative statistics according racial lines, nothing escapes this playwright.

Despite packing in so many issues and criticisms, he achieves the incredible feat of not allowing it to be overbearing, didactic, or a tiresome lament. His creation of a hypothetical Singapore with Malays being the majority, and the Chinese being the minority, is a defamiliarising element that throws the justifications the government gives for their policies into sharper relief.

It is within this sophisticated structure that the plot of five candidates from the ruling party contesting to win a group representational constituency in an election progresses. As Catherine Seah (Serene Chen), the minority Chinese candidate, deviates from the party line by campaigning for improving the Chinese community, the play poses questions that transcends beyond race issues: Who should a politician represent? What constitutes the people? Should one campaign for what one believes in despite in displeasing one’s constituents?

These questions are raised as Catherine comes into conflict with her colleagues: grassroots activist Zainab Halim (Dhalifah Shahril), Minister of Human Resources Roslan Jantan (Khairudin Samsudin), retired Brigadier-General Bukhari Ghazali (Fir Rahman), and Maisarah Hamdan (Farah Ong); a lawyer who neither harps on her homosexuality nor identifies herself to be part of the LGBT community.

While characters in a farce are not meant to be complex, the cast should be lauded for their robust performances. The comical moments are buoyant and entertaining as the actors pick up on each other cues quickly, while the tense moments are played with emotional truth as each character knows what they want out of the exchange.

All said and done, the successful staging of the show, with merely an advisory that says the show is suited for 16 years and above, raises another political issue. Why did the powers that be let such a show pass?

Of course, I can only offer speculations.

While I would love to think that the authorities have become enlightened to allow the airing of such issues, they could be acting based on yet another old argument. Plays have very limited reach, and theatre-goers are usually more “sophisticated” than the lay person. Furthermore, the “problematic” character is Chinese and not Malay. As such, the Malay audience members would not identify with her too strongly. If that were the case, then the very existence of GRC as a staged play is a manifestation of the problems that the playwright is trying to raise.

Other Reviews

“The Party Don’t Stop: A Review of GRC by Teater Ekamatra” by Ng Yi-Sheng, The Online Citizen

“Review: GRC by Teater Ekamatra” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

“Chasing our dreams… together?” by Jocelyn Chng, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

““少数与多数之间的互换与碰撞” by Zekson Tan (陈迦笙), Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews