[Theatre Review] A Patchwork of Surprise and Abhorrence

Isaac Tan reviews two shows featured in M1 Patch! A Theatre Festival of Artful Play. One is deceptively simple, while the other is literally what the title says it is. 

Immortalx
The Theatre Practice
8 August 2018, 2 p.m.
Practice Space
1–12 August 2018

The Ordinary and the Unspectacular
The Theatre Practice
16 August 2018
Practice Space
16–19 August 2018

In collaboration with M1, The Theatre Practice (TTP) launched M1 Patch! A Theatre Festival of Artful Play which took place during the whole of August at TTP’s facilities. It promises to be a festival of theatrical experimentation in the spirit of play.

Every time when anything is touted as experimental, I get two extreme reactions. The first is apprehension. The show might be self-indulgent—a private game played amongst the creative team. To them, if the audience did not get it, they are simply not working hard enough, or they are not open enough to cast their prejudice aside.

The other reaction is excitement. Could this be something new, powerful, or at least surprising? While I will stop short of saying that I have seen something revolutionary, I will admit to being surprised a few times in my reviewing career.

Immortalx and The Ordinary and the Unspectacular evoke both reactions in me simply because they did not deliver what they promised in the programme notes.

With its 60-minute duration, colourful aesthetics, and students being its target demographic, one expects Immortalx to be a fun romp of what-ifs featuring figures from Chinese mythology.  However, I was surprised that it provokes questions about secularisation, playing god, and what becomes of myths and legends once we appropriate it.

In this imagined world, the gods have lost their powers, some of them have been scattered all over and forced to live mortal lives, while others have vanished. The Jade Emperor (Hao Wei Kai) seems content as he focuses his attention on pursuing his 10th PhD. Ne Zha (Ng Mun Poh), on the other hand, is intent on reclaiming the glory days as he painstakingly teaches the descendants of the immortals various supernatural skills.

The immortal descendants include Mysterious Aw (Windson Liong), son of Dragon King; Ray Girl (Ang Xiao Teng), granddaughter of Thunder God; and Poppy Chang (Frances Lee), granddaughter of Lady of Forgetfulness. 

Things come to a head when Ne Zha invents a machine that could restore the powers of the immortals. This disrupts the balance of nature, thus wreaking havoc on the world. The descendants thus have to curb their teacher before things further spiral out of control. But could they do it?

The central conflict ostensibly seems to be between Ne Zha, who takes his personal convictions to the extreme, and the descendants who doubt about their abilities. While these issues are flashed out quite clearly, I am more interested in various other issues that seem to be suggested by the show.

 The immortals lost most of their powers because of the increasingly secularisation of society. What roles do these figures have in our society today? What does that make us? Have we succeeded the immortals with our technological progress?

The last point could not be more ironically apparent with Ne Zha’s machine that created an imbalance in the natural order as all sorts of disasters, including the Orchard Road floods, occur.

Furthermore, the reference to the Monkey King being captured and placed in the zoo for the entertainment of mortals raises questions of how we appropriate these myths and legends. The Monkey King is very much with us through all sorts of media. But our experience of him is very different from that of our ancestors, who believe that his spirit truly exists. Are these mythological figures merely meant for our entertainment, and are merely kept alive because they vaguely belong to something called culture?

With these thoughts percolating in my mind throughout the show, imagine my surprise when the programme notes only mentioned human self-doubt and the need for balance.

Throw in a riotous performance from an excellent cast and the action taking place at various corners in the theatre-in-the-round set-up, it is a fun ride.

If an earlier review of the original staging is anything to go by, kudos should go to the creative team, headed by director Kuo Jian Hong, for revamping the show quite thoroughly.

Contrary to my colleague’s opinion that there are [n]o divine epiphanies,” I did not expect to get so much out of an hour’s performance.

In contrast, the gobbledygook that is the English programme notes for The Ordinary and the Unspectacular promises a profundity in the quotidian—a meditation on old age and the need for slowness in a chaotic age.

But all we get is a self-indulgent show that is more of a physical theatre exercise that should have never left the rehearsal room. The supposed exploration of facial expression, energy, physical vocabulary, gesture, posture, alignment, proxemics, tempo, and weight is superficial.

Even in slowness, there are so many possibilities for physical dynamics. However, the cast (CHIA, Julius Foo, Goh Lay Kuan, Jalyn Han, Lim Chiong Ngian, Lok Meng Chue, Wong May Lam), save for one of them who changes the set, all look like spectres hovering a few feet from their graves.  

To make things worse, the constant motif of walking into the light in the first 30 minutes of the show threatens to send this reviewer into a coma. It is no wonder four audience members walked out.

Is there anything interesting in the show at all? Well, there are a couple of scenes—Julius Foo clutching his red flip flops, and four women jostling for space with kitchen utensils. A friend, occasional critic, and namesake postulated that the former is about life and death, while the latter is about women’s struggle.

His interpretation is valid, but the two scenes do not redeem the show as a whole. More importantly, while they are intriguing, they do not add anything new intellectually or experientially.

The only novel thing about this purgatorial torture is the reverent silence from the audience. Perhaps it is due to the fact that the cast consists of well-respected veterans in the industry, and one hopes that something more could be gleaned from the performance.

This makes it all the more reprehensible as we are strung along with no end in sight.

That said, The Theatre Practice should be faulted to the extent that their two offerings do keep to the theme of play. It is just that one is playfully clever, while the other merely plays the audience.

Other Reviews of Immortalx

“Theatre Review: In Immortalx, gods losing their powers make for lively entertainment” by Olivia Ho, The Straits Times Life! 

“Immortalx: Full of Artful Play and Adventure” by Victoria Chen, Popspoken

“M1 Patch! 2018: Immortalx by The Theatre Practice (Review)” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

Other Reviews of The Ordinary and the Unspectacular

“Slowing down and taking too long” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life!

“M1 Patch! 2018: The Ordinary and The Unspectacular《平淡无奇》 (Review)” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

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[Listing] Monkey Goes West by W!ld Rice

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Bringing the Year of the Monkey to a happy climax, W!LD RICE’s award-winning Monkey Goes West will be returning for a strictly limited season to the Drama Centre Theatre for the holidays.

Monkey Goes West completely sold out its first run in 2014, playing to an audience of more than 15,000 at the newly refurbished Victoria Theatre. It dominated the 2015 Straits Times Life! Theatre Awards with seven nominations – more than any other production that year. It eventually took home the awards for Production of the Year, Production of the Year (Reader’s Choice) and Best Costume Design (Tube Gallery).

“The W!LD RICE pantomime is a unique annual tradition for family audiences in Singapore, and Monkey Goes West set a new benchmark in terms of the artistic excellence that we always strive for,” says Ivan Heng, Artistic Director of W!LD RICE. “In the Year of the Monkey, we are thrilled that audiences, both loyal and new, will have the opportunity to experience this incredible show for themselves!”

With an affectionate, cheeky script by W!LD RICE Resident Playwright Alfian Sa’at, music by acclaimed composer Elaine Chan and direction by Broadway Beng Sebastian Tan, Monkey Goes West is the first W!LD RICE pantomime to take inspiration from the East, relocating beloved Chinese literary classic Journey To The West to modern-day Singapore.

Tan, who earned a Straits Times Life! Theatre Award nomination for Best Director for his work, will return to direct the production, which he describes as a “dream come true”.

“Monkey Goes West turned out to be this award-winning show that audiences loved and couldn’t get enough of, which is really why we are bringing it back so soon,” Tan explains with pride.

Young talents from Martial House – Singapore’s leading wushu academy – will be showing off their impressive martial arts skills on stage. The academy will also work closely with the children of W!LD RICE’s FIRST STAGE! programme, aged 5 to 12, in preparation for their stage debuts.

The cast of Monkey Goes West includes some of Singapore’s finest veteran actors and rising stars. Familiar faces like Chua Enlai (The Importance of Being Earnest, TV’s The Noose), Siti Khalijah Zainal (HOTEL, Best Of) and Darius Tan (Army Daze, Twelve Angry Men) will share the stage with Sugie Phua (Project SuperStar, Liao Zhai Rocks!) Joshua Lim (My Mother Buys Condoms, Café), Frances Lee (Beauty World, Fat Pig) and Kimberly Chan (High Class, Hotpants).

Monkey Goes West runs from 18 November–17 December 2016 at the Drama Centre Theatre. For ticketing information, please visit Sistic.

[Theatre Review] Jacques Brel Revisited

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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.

Jacques Brel is Alive and Well & Living in Paris

Sing’Theatre

28 May 2016, 4pm

SOTA Drama Theatre

26 May—4 June 2016

In the programme notes, director George Chan thanked his team “for being so brave to stage a show that is not necessarily commercially viable.” This anticipates the question: “Why would I want to watch some European thing which is just a series of songs?”

On the surface, the show seems quite foreign. But what exactly is Jacques Brel is Alive and Well & Living in Paris? It is a revue of songs by a Belgian singer which were written mostly in French, and translated into English by Americans. The songs touch on life, love, war, peace, death, age, class among many others.

In short, it is a little of everything brilliantly performed by a group of actors who are not afraid of putting their individual stamp on Brel’s classic songs.

In Frances Lee, we have sassiness coupled with a devilishly good voice which culminates in Funeral Tango. As her persona sardonically observes how people behave at her funeral, she makes the song her own by choosing to adopt a Singaporean accent to mock her “friends.” This zinger of a song is completed with her cast mates decked in sunglasses, while enacting a pantomime of lavish sympathy.

Stephanie Van Driesen provides a beautiful counterpoint to Lee by taking on songs that require a demure persona. From Timid Freida to the heart-wrenching Ne Me Quitte Pas, one relishes every single second she is on stage. The clarity of her voice and depth of expression attest to her virtuosity as a performer.

Not to be outdone, the men are keen to showcase their range and versatility. Apart from being impressed by Matt Jasper’s vocals, notice his range as he transits from being crass in Middle Class, to being earnest in Song for Old Lovers, to being camp in Next. My favourite performance of his has to be his gritty rendition of Amsterdam.

The same goes for George Chan as he delights the audience by being “cute in a stupid ass way” in Jackie as his persona prances around with youthful vigour while aspiring to be famous. His soulful rendition of Marieke goes in an opposite direction as his persona reflects on lost love. His choice of paring it down—as compared to having this intoxicating drive which is present in Brel’s performance—makes the song heartfelt and painful. In this vein, music director Joel Nah must be congratulated for his gorgeous arrangements of the music.

Speaking of choices, Chan must also be praised for his directorial choice of including Genevieve Peck’s projections as a subtle way to impress upon the audience the relevance of Brel’s message. He also exercised some poetic licence by replacing the places of conflicts in the last line of The Bulls to current ones; a sobering reminder of the slaughter that is still happening.

Together, the quartet showcases its range by keenly executing comical sequences—choreographed by Chan—in Madeleine as Jasper pines for her, while taking us for a dizzying ride in Carousel, before closing the show with a rousing anthem of peace, If We Only Have Love. This stellar cast works so well together that one hopes they will reunite to do something on a much larger scale.

That said, the latter half of the ignorant question posed at the beginning of this review contains a kernel of truth. While having a continuous performance of 28 songs—without any plot or explanation— is meant to showcase the poetry of Brel’s music, the constant barrage of song, choreography, and hard-hitting messages can be overwhelming. This results in having some of the numbers pass by in a blur. Unfortunately, this is out of Sing’Theatre’s control. We can only look at the original creators of the show (Mort Schuman and Eric Blau), and wag our fingers.

As the cast took their curtain call, I thought to myself, “If only the title of the revue were true.” If only Brel were still around to witness his legacy and how it sparked such a great deal of creativity that is evident in Sing’Theatre’s latest success.

Other Reviews

“Jacques Brel is Alive and Well & Living in Paris – SingTheatre – Review” by Jennifer, Angloinfo

“Review: Sing’Theatre’s Jacques Brel is Alive and Well & Living in Paris” by Steven, The Mad Scene