[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

[Dance Review] Stunning Life Cycles

Photo: Ng Yuan Jie

Returning
Goh Lay Kuan
14 August 2015
Drama Centre Theatre
13–15 August 2015

Ostensibly, Returning shows the life cycle of a school of salmon and the trials and tribulations they face. Artistically, I see a life cycle of a tree—drawing nutrients from the roots of tradition before bearing fruits that are expressive and confident.

The dance piece is divided into five segments with the first three segments portraying the salmon developing from an embryo to a smolt and the final two showing the salmon returning to the streams to lay eggs.

Choreographers Meenakshy Bhaskar, Jenny Neo, and Osman Abdul Hamid drew on the movement vocabulary of the Indian (Bharatanatyam), Chinese, and Malay dance traditions to chart the developmental stages of the salmon’s life cycle.

As the embryos become alevins, their movements are limited and they struggle to make sense of the environment. The structured and grounded Bharatanatyam movements , conceived by Bhaskar, lends a firm but quiet energy to the piece. The striking facial expressions and footwork of the dancers exudes the eagerness of the alevins that are full of potential.

Neo’s light and youthful Chinese dance choreography captures the energetic fry as they zip around, avoid predators, and pick up the necessarily survival skills. Despite the perilous situation, the dancers punctuate their quick movements with a momentary pose and let out a playful kiss—the fry call out to one another to ensure that they stay together.

The fry become fingerlings and the process of smoltification soon occurs. After this transition, the smolts emerge with a silvery coating. This appears to be a rite of passage and the Malay dance choreography by Osman Abdul Hamid celebrates the fulfilment of the rite. A sense of joy fills the air as the dancers sway gently and gracefully to the lush tones of the accordion.

Reaching maturation and confident of survival, the smolts navigates and overcome all sorts of obstacles with aplomb. This is mirrored by the dancers as they—gaining all the needed technique and strength through their traditional dance training—come together and showcase their versatility in Osman Abduls Hamid’s contemporary choreography. All of them are consummate dancers as the audience is treated to a sequence that is engaging and dramatic. The swirling blue rays of the intelligent lights, designed by Dorothy Png, evoke the tumultuous depths of the ocean which heightens the tension.

The final choreography by Low Ee Chiang continues the drama that culminates in all the dancers taking to the stage. Their synergy is palpable for the renewal of the next generation of salmon depends on them. In one striking moment, they all fall to the floor as the lights goes out. The meditative sound of the flute creeps in slowly as the dancers emerge from their foetal position. The process is consummated and life begins again.

Despite its structure, Returning does not feel segmented and kudos to Mdm Goh Lay Kuan (artistic director) for ensuring that all the choreographies coalesced into a cohesive whole.

The same commendation must go to Julian Wong (music director) for the same achievement with the music. In fact, the structure of the music complements the dance as well. In the first three segments, music from the Indian, Chinese, and Malay traditions take their respective centre stage and instruments that do not typically belong to the tradition serve as accompaniment. However, in the final two segments, composer Ho Wen Yang really brings out the best in all the instruments as they chorus as a wondrous whole.

For us—the younger generation—whatever is known of Mdm Goh’s legacy is probably through interviews and books. With this latest offering, she beckons us to relook at the artistic roots and the possibilities of dance with fresh eyes.

We cannot help but follow her on this journey of return.

Other Reviews

“‘Returning’ Delivers Visual Delights” by Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop, Blouinartinfo

“Goh Lay Kuan’s ‘Returning’ is a Flawed Return to Traditional Dance Forms” by Nirmala Seshadari, Straits Times Life!