[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

[Theatre Review] The Reviewer Reviewed

Photo: 36frames/ Courtesy of W!ld Rice

Photo: 36frames/ Courtesy of W!ld Rice

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.

My Mother Buys Condoms

W!ld Rice, Singapore Theatre Festival 2016

24 July 2016, 3pm

Creative Cube, Lasalle College of the Arts

14 — 24 July 2016

Prior to watching My Mother Buys Condoms, I face a common problem that is familiar to any critic. Having accumulated a sleep debt, I was afraid of not being able to give it my full attention, and assess the best that I could. Playwright Helmi Yusof, who is also an established arts journalist and critic for The Business Times, makes my job easy by peppering his debut play with witty punch lines; puns on swear words; and hilarious comedy of errors sequences.

Unfortunately he offers little else, especially when it comes to exploring the sexuality of an older woman.

The set-up of Raju (Ramesh Panicker), an air-conditioner repairman, taking English classes from retired literature teacher Maggie (Lok Meng Chue) because he wants to read crime reports in the newspaper is improbable. Additionally, the acceleration of events to the point when both of them fall in love makes it seem as if Maggie loves Raju simply because he expresses an interest.

Such a shallow plot could be forgiven if Helmi intends for it to be a convenient device to give more space for Maggie to deal with the conflict between her desires and the social mores of society. Yet, when it comes to it, all Maggie does is to ask, “Why not?” She does not offer an argument, or try to show the flawed logic of her detractors. Instead, she is like a petulant child who asks why regardless of what is said to her.

Coupled with Wong Chee Wai’s intimate set and Julian Wong’s mawkish musical interludes, the feel of the whole show is reminiscent of a popular local ‘90s television sitcom, Under One Roof.

That said, one must not downplay the craft and skill of comedy. Helmi does have a neck for comedy, and this is enhanced by the actors’ (apart from leads, Elnie S. Mashari, Joshua Lim, and Seong Hui Xuan also deserve commendation) ability to keep the comical scenes snappy and energetic.

While My Mother Buys Condoms indicates an encouraging prospect of critics being able to traverse both sides of the footlights, it should not pretend to aspire more than what it is—a light diversion better suited for a variety show.

Other Reviews

“My Mother Buys Condoms: Let’s talk about sex and seniors” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life! 

“Grey Pride: A Review of ‘My Mother Buys Condoms’, by W!ld Rice” by Ng Yi-Sheng, The Online Citizen

“Theatre Review (Singapore): ‘My Mother Buys Condoms’ by Helmi Yusof” by Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam, Blog Critics.

“My Mother Buys Condoms: Love, Sex And Senior Citizens?” by Reuel Eugene, Reuel Writes.

“Sex, ageing, and the courage to be happy” by Alisa Maya Ravindran, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

“My Mother Buys Condoms” by Dawn Teo, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews