[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

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[Theatre Review] The Joy of Playing Dress-up

The_Emperor_39_s_New_Clothes_by_W_LD_RICE_pic_3

Photo: Albert Lim KS / Courtesy of W!ld Rice

The Emperor’s New Clothes

W!ld Rice

21 November 2015

Drama Centre Theatre

10 November–12 December 2015

There is a difficulty in adapting the popular tale by Hans Christian Andersen as a pantomime. It needs to have wonderful costumes, it has to be fun, and—most importantly—it must not be pretentious as the main point of the story is to mock the pretentions of society.

W!ld Rice excels on all counts.

Nathan No Surname (Benjamin Kheng) and Khairul No Surname (Sezairi) are orphans who become tailors. They are commissioned by the  ministers in the hopes of getting them to create a wonderful outfit for the vainglorious Emperor Henry Lim Bay Kun (Lim Kay Siu) for free. Khairul eventually convinces Nathan that they should take it as it is a good exposure for their business. They later find out that the Emperor arrests all who take the attention away from his outfit during the National Dress Parade (NDP) and decide to teach the Emperor a lesson with his “new outfit” for the 50th NDP.

Nothing is safe from satire as Joel Tan’s witty script references Lee Kuan Yew, lawsuits against foreign media, incompetency of the ministers, ISA, banning  musical instruments during Thaipusam, mediocrity of Mediacorp dramas, SG 50, and absurdity of national day parades.

With Tan’s clever employment of puns, acronyms, and Singlish, the audience experiences a bellyache of laughs throughout the two hours. The greatest merit of this sparkling script is that it does not belabour the various criticisms that it puts across. This makes the play snappy while packing in quite a lot at the same time.

Additionally, its injection of self-deprecating jokes such as mentioning Ivana Heng, the crazy theatre director who designed a rainbow outfit for the Emperor, or the Emperor asking his Minister of Retribution (Andrew Lua) to keep tabs on Sam Willows (a band that Kheng is part of) makes it all the more delicious.

Director Pam Oei pulls out all the stops and makes her cast showcase whatever talent they have or even acquiring new ones just for the show. Most of them sing, dance, and play instruments live on stage.

Benjamin Kheng’s anxious Nathan is a nice contrast to Sezairi’s laidback Khairul. Aside from their singing which they are known for, their dancing is tight and there is a wonderful synergy between them as we can easily believe that they are “brothers from another mother.”

Lim Kay Siu (Emperor Henry Lim) brings out his youthful and vain side as he preens and poses throughout the show. Audrey Luo (Empress Jeanette How) plays the melodramatic caricature of local actress Jeanette Aw to the hilt. This could not come at a worse time as Aw is currently facing criticisms about her inability to sing in Beauty World.

Other notable performances include Siti Khalijah Zainal (Nafisa bte Jasmani, Minister of Finance), Andrew Lua’s  (Wong Bok Siu, Minister of Retribution), Benjamin Wong and his counter-tenor vocal range as the aptly named Aplhonsus Kan Sing Low, Andrew Marko as the Thai fashion reviewer, and Candice de Rozario as Arppeggio Chong.

Julian Wong keeps our toes tapping with his catchy tunes that range from joget music to the moving, ballad-like “Open Up” when the tailors and the Empress confront the Emperor. Set designer Eucien Chia adopts the comic book aesthetic by having skyscrapers pointing inwards. The monochromatic set allows costume designers Phisit and Saxit from Tube Gallery to unleash a largely neon palette onto the stage.

All these elements make for a fun, energetic, zany, and hilarious musical that calls on the powers that be to reflect on their style of governance and perhaps renew their commitment to serving the people.

With Singapore celebrating her Jubilee and witnessing a heated election, I could not think of a more befitting production to end the year. If only we could nudge our ministers into the theatre.

Other Reviews

“The Emperor’s New Clothes pantomime has audience in stitches” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life!

“The Emperor’s New Clothes: Revisiting SG50 Through the Wittiest Musical” by Sheryl Teo, Popspoken

[Listing] The Emperor’s New Clothes by W!ld Rice

Emperor's New Clothes

Once upon a time, in a kingdom not so far away, ruled a vain and pompous Emperor, who was crazy about his clothes, himself and little else. So obsessed with fashion was he that he decreed that the 50th anniversary of his reign be celebrated with the most extravagant National Dress Parade of all time. But, as he primped and preened, he neglected his citizens, who could only get his attention by complimenting him on his appearance.

One day, two cheeky tailors decide to teach him a lesson. Presenting the Emperor with an eye-popping ensemble literally woven out of thin air, they convince him that only the smartest and most competent people in the land can see it.

What can be done to stop the nation’s biggest wardrobe malfunction? Why won’t the Emperor’s courtiers and the aristocracy speak up? Is there anyone who’s brave enough to tell the naked truth?

This holiday season, W!ld Rice puts a Singaporean spin on Hans Christian Andersen’s timeless tale about the ultimate fashion victim. Directed by Pam Oei, The Emperor’s New Clothes is a brand new musical with a razor-sharp script by Joel Tan and a sparkling score by Julian Wong. Its stellar cast includes Lim Kay Siu as the Emperor, Benjamin Kheng of The Sam Willows, Singapore Idol’s Sezairi Sazali and Siti Khalijah Zainal—all playing musical instruments live on stage!

Fun and laughter never go out of fashion. Don’t miss the most hilarious, heartwarming musical of the holiday season!

Catch The Emperor’s New Clothes from 20 November – 12 December at the Drama Centre Theatre. For ticketing information, please visit Sistic.