[Theatre Review] ‘The Karims’ Explores the Burdens and Warmth of Familial Ties

Photo: Checkpoint Theatre

Keluarga Besar En. Karim (The Karims)
Checkpoint Theatre
Online, Sistic Live
29 September–15 October 2021

If one were asked, “What makes a family a family?” How many of us would be able to provide an insightful answer beyond displaying birth certificates and family trees?

In Keluarga Besar En. Karim (The Karims), playwright Adib Kosnan explores the dynamics of a Singaporean Malay family through the new addition of a son-in-law, Aqil. Likened to a new player joining a football team, he wades through the entanglements and expectations of his new family, as long-held resentments surface. 

In his new team, Aqil (Adib Kosnan) has to contend with his father-in-law, Karim (Rafaat Hj Hamzah), who expects everyone to attend to familial obligations, sometimes at the expense of their desires. This leaves his sister-in-law, Rinny (Rusydina Afiqah), seething in resentment as she believes her father will never understand her.

Normah (Dalifah Shahril), his mother-in-law, may appear to be a typical housewife obsessed with K-dramas, her maternal instincts keep her own family drama from spiraling out of control. His wife, Balqis (Farah Lola), is trying to put off being independent from her family as Aqil is considering emigration. 

While the conversation is seemingly quotidian and the show feels like a dish in a slow cooker, there are several plot lines that untangle quite quickly as we move along. Through Claire Wong’s sensitive direction and Adib’s knack for storytelling, we see tensions rising to the surface only to be dispelled or deferred just before it veers into melodrama. 

With the bulk of cinematography, directed by Joel Lim, consisting of very tight close-ups, there is no space for the actors to hide except to inhabit their characters with complete sincerity. On that score, the actors really stepped up to the plate. I find myself being fully involved; ardently wishing for Karim and Rinny to meet each other halfway or giggling with the women as the daughters discuss their mother’s taste in men. 

Speaking of cinematography, this production resists any neat categorisations such as theatre for film or a short film. Despite the tight shots, it does not try to convince you that it is filmed in an actual apartment and there are a couple of scenes in a car, depicted by the well-worn conventions of actors sitting close together with some cursory miming from Karim as he seems to drive on a very straight road. 

The shot occasionally zooms out and we see an empty square which represents the grave of Diana, the child that the Karims lost. In a scene where we see Karim and Aqil performing a ritual while tending to the grave, the camera focuses on the hands and multiple shots are superimposed, forming a kind of palimpsest. Such gestural language is characteristic of Checkpoint Theatre’s productions.

Yet, this also points to unrealised possibilities—if the creative team does not want this to strictly be a short film, why not make better use of the Esplanade Theatre Studio and introduce more theatrical conventions to enhance the storytelling?

Throughout the show, we gradually learn about the motivations of different characters as well as the backstory of some events, and all of them come to a head at a family dinner. As all of this has been on a slow simmer, it is slightly discordant that they are resolved so quickly by Alqis’s comments about the importance of family. 

It is as if playwright Adib Kosnan is apologetic about taking too much of his audience’s time that he quickly deploys Alqis-Ex-Machina to take all the messy strands and tie them into a bow.

Despite that minor flaw, we are more than compensated by a stunning performance by Rafaat Hj Hamzah as he portrays Karim shrinking from an obstinate patriarch to a scared and broken man. His strident voice at the beginning of the dinner shrivels into a whimper as he reveals his fears.

Looking up from my screen as the credits roll, I cannot help but wonder which character I resemble most in my own family. Just as an ‘outsider’ casts a light on something that the Karims took for granted, this fictional family would do the same for many others who have the privilege of paying them a visit.

Further Reading

Interview with Playwright Adib Kosnan about Keluarga Besar En. Karim (The Karims)

Other Reviews

“Theatre review: In-law tensions in finely wrought family drama The Karims by Ong Sor Fern, The Straits Times Life!

[Theatre Review] Throwing One’s Hands Up

Hands Up
Split Theatre
5 March 2021
Sigma Collective Space
5–7 March 2021

An actor in school uniform points to something ahead and above eye level. Another actor with a school top and red shorts holds him back. The former questions the latter. We do not know if the first actor is directing our attention to something, trying to touch something, or just wanting to reach out. We do not know if the second actor wants to stop the other from danger or prevent him from leaving.

The above scene from Split Theatre’s Hands Up—directed by Darryl Lim and Fadhil Daud— struck me because it encapsulates the whole show. This gutsy group of actors (Amanda Kim, Clement Yeo, Ella Wee, Mabel Yeo, Hoe Wei Qi, Xin Rui) may have something to say, but we do not know what exactly that is.

The show is purportedly divided into five sections: silence, self, pride, realisation, and death.

Take ‘Self’ for example. It consists of ten minutes of movement motifs that are repeated by the actors. They, perhaps, gesture towards struggle, conflict, connection, birth. Yet, there is no palpable sense of progression or stasis in the composition. The actors seem like microscopic organisms moving about in the rectangular petri dish of a dance studio.

Worse still, I am assuming the movement sequence just described belongs to ‘self’ rather than other sections simply because one is never sure. And wherever the other sections might be, they all proceed in the same vein of generic gesturing.

We have scraps of text that range from the prologue of Agamemnon to the very mundane question in Hokkien: ‘Have you eaten?’ We do not know if the characters mean what they say or if the piece is perhaps inclined towards absurdism and the emptiness of words.

We have bits of song that are perhaps veneers of the characters; occasional dance breaks that perhaps aid with transitioning to another section; and one could go on ad nauseum.

All of that is such a waste as the show actually started with some potential.

In ‘Silence’ (this I am sure because it is the first thing we see), the actors introduce themselves by writing their names on their individual whiteboards. Next, they inform us that it is difficult to interact because of COVID-19. They then attempt to strike a conversation by writing a question on their whiteboards and would shush anyone up if someone verbally answers them. The fact that fellow audience members could not help themselves but to answer, even after the first couple of instances, speaks of the innate, human need to connect and communicate.

But as with the carousel of vignettes that ensue, it is not developed any further.

With a show that offers perhaps, perhaps, perhaps, we are less inclined to put one’s hand up and more inclined to throw both up.

[Theatre Review] Cats, presented by Base Entertainment Asia

I am honoured to be invited by Hawk Liu (singing teacher, singer, and actor) to share my thoughts on Cats by Andrew Lloyd Webber, brought to Singapore by Base Entertainment Asia.

Full details can be found on Hawk’s website.

In this spontaneous exchange, we talked about the background of the show; how it compares to previous stagings; and what we liked about the actual show that we watched on 19 December 2019.

Addenda

♦ The Guardian article I was referring to is by Katherine Hughes on T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.

Dance / Movement
♦ While we spoke mainly of ballet, there were elements of tap dance, jazz, and contemporary in this musical.

♦ A key element in the musical is audience interaction. The cats were scampering from the audience onto the stage. It may be easy to stand up and do a few cat-like twitches of the head. But the actors actually crawled up and down the aisles. The embodiment here is wonderful. 

♦ There was a strong synchronicity and control in the cast. 

Music

♦ Some may complain that the timbre of the music, with the multiple keyboards, may sound a little dated. But I think it still works for the musical as it creates an unnerving feeling created whenever Macavity is thought to be nearby. 

♦ As with the dramaturgy, there is also a range of music styles present such as rock, music hall, pseudo-opera, and many more.  

♦ “Memory” sung by Grizzabella is good, but slightly marred by the extreme jacking up of her mic’s sound level during the climax of the song. This limits the actor’s ability to expand her presence and voice. It becomes a little jarring. 


More About Hawk Liu

Hawk has interviewed many actors and creatives of big musicals that were brought to Singapore. Visit his website to watch them. 

If you are interested in singing, you can learn more about Hawk’s singing lessons here.

[Theatre Review] La Mariposa Borracha –The Last Generic Hurrah

La Mariposa Borracha (The Drunken Butterfly)
Creatives Inspirit
27 July 2019, 3 p.m.
Gateway Theatre Black Box
26‒28 July 2019

With a hospital hallway being projected onto a blank triptych, low beeps of medical machinery, and a digital display showing that a lift is out of order, one looks forward to how patient X (Shanice Stanislaus) will escape from the hospital and put on her final performance.

Unfortunately, the plot does not take much precedence after the prologue, and the show alternates between scenes when X is ill and a variety of dance sequences by the clown troupe (Snider played by Yazid Jalil, Tommy Wildfire played by Tan Rui Shan, and Z played by Dennis Sofian) as they try to carry on with the “show”. Thus, we see X struggling with different aspects of her sickness, and the dance sequences seem to cheer her up—to find the joy and love in laugh amidst life’s darkest moments.

Once the audience gets the basic premise, the show feels as if it is running on two tracks, and one learns to expect a fun bit, followed by a poignant bit, and that is it.

While it is enjoyable to watch the whimsical troupe and the larger ensemble (Krish Natarajan, Nicole Kong, Andrea Joy Alingalan, Alvyna Han, Zalifah Ibrahim, Carol Ee, Prema Latha) indulge in their inner disco divas; boy band heartthrobs; or Zumba junkies, these do not go beyond the idea of celebrating life.

Overall, Stanislaus, who also wrote this show, and director Alvin Chiam do have some good ideas: the heart-breaking phone call between X and her mother; and X perched on the ladder during a dance scene as Tommy passes her the balloons, making X the image of tragic clown as she bears the burdens of her illness. But they seem to be occasional moments of inspiration, rather than entry points into exploring an issue.

While the show could have been conceptually stronger, it is buoyed by the principal cast. The audience interaction with X is quite amusing, as Stanislaus has a wry sense of humour. Yazid Jalil puts on an engaging performance as Snider. While he may be the strict “master of punctuality” of the troupe, it is interesting to track his reactions throughout the show, as they betray a kind heart underneath a stern exterior. Tan Rui Shan’s Tommy is a ball of energy that keeps on giving. Dennis Sofian’s Z is endearingly earnest, and his sense of loss when X’s illness worsens does highlight the difficulty of caregiving.

Ultimately, the team needs to dig deeper and see what exactly it is about illness and caregiving they are trying to explore, while having both aspects of the show in a tighter weave. Apart from it being fun, what other potentials do the dance sequences have?

The drunken butterfly need not be in a hurry to take flight. It should take more time and consideration to plot its trajectory before doing so.

[Theatre Review] “Flowers” Offers a Subtle but Refreshing Scent

Flowers
Drama Box
1 May 2019
74 Jalan Kelabu Asap
1‒5 May 2019

Partly due to the current zeitgeist, and partly a coïncidence of production timelines, there have been a slew of shows eager to address issues of gender, harassment, and abuse since last year. A common approach, at least in the shows I have caught, is to state various facts and declare the need for reëducation.

Apart from it being an experiential installation rather than a conventional theatre performance, Flowers (conceived by Han Xuemei in collaboration with playwright Jean Tay, lighting designer Lim Woan Wen, and sound designer Darren Ng) is refreshing because it is more intent on asking questions.

Set in a house within the Holland Village area, audience members are given a cassette player as they listen to a recording of a monologue delivered by Ann Lek, and they wander about a two-storey house for 70 minutes. The monologue details the fraught relationships a woman has with her parents and brother; the known but unspoken violence her father unleashes; and the different expectations placed on her and her brother.

The audience is thus cast as voyeur, investigator, and confidant all at the same time, as we are allowed to open any door and drawer within the house. The quotidian artefacts soon take a life on its own, telling not just the history of the inhabitants, but becoming symbolic extensions of the monologue. For example, the numerous photographs from Officer Cadet School in the brother’s room do not merely tell us that he has served national service, but it also echoes ideas about masculinity and expectations placed on young men.

As such, the physical act of exploring the house parallels the self-reflection that one undergoes. This is enhanced by the evocative, but reticent monologue. If you are expecting a dramatic recount of a violent episode, you will be disappointed. However, the suggestions within the monologue gives one space to fill up the details, perhaps from your own experiences.

This also expands the notion of violence, and how it can be coloured and complicated within a familial dynamic.

The master stroke of the piece comes when, while wandering about, you suddenly chance upon an actor playing the father. He never acknowledges the presence of the audience, but potters about the house, cooking, washing dishes, watering the plants, and watching television.

This sudden inclusion opens up an opportunity for confrontation or reflection. I found myself silently observing the father for any traces of violence, or, at the very least, impatience. My endeavour failed and I soon wondered what I was hoping to achieve.

Why should there be a clear-cut cause and effect? Is the father necessarily a monster, even though he committed a heinous act?  Does the mother have any agency in this dynamic? Where does the buck stop? Do we all also enact violence in our moments of impatience? How do we stop the perpetuation of violence in all its guises? Is it simply a matter of education?

In the cacophony created by stomping on soap boxes and declamations from high horses, the gentle prodding and a space to pause and reflect, as offered by Flowers, may just be a start towards a more productive and sympathetic solution.

Other Reviews

“Drama Box’s Flowers quietly challenges misogyny” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life! 

“The Wars We Fight in Silence — FLOWERS: Review” by Cheryl Tan, Popspoken

“FLOWERS” by Jocelyn Chng, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

“Review: FLOWERS by Drama Box” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

[Theatre Review] Faust/Us — Reinterpreting the Dust of Dead Men

Photo: Crispian Chan

Faust/Us
Nine Years Theatre
24 March 2019, 3 p.m.
Drama Centre Black Box
21‒24 March 2019

Stage a conflict between God and Mephistopheles within a two-storey wooden structure? Recast Faust as a young woman? Rewrite the second part of Faust?

Nine Years Theatre (NYT) new associate director Cherilyn Woo, has achieved all that and more in Faust/Us, the company’s Mandarin adaptation of Faust.

This production marks a couple of firsts for the company: the first show that isn’t directed by Nelson Chia, and the first production in which a part of the plot is completely rewritten.

Woo turns the cautionary tale of man’s greed into a humanistic piece that ennobles the human struggle.

The wager between God (Hang Qian Chou) and Mephistopheles (Timothy Wan) is no longer a symbol of sin and redemption, but a childish and selfish bet at the expense of humanity. Faust is not a crazed man, but Jo Faust (Mia Chee), a woman who signs a pact with Mephistopheles after being bogged down by ennui. She does not fall in love with Grett (Neo Hai Bin) out of lust, but out of admiration of his writing. At the show’s climax, Faust does not give in to one side or the other, but proceeds with the pact on her own terms.

This bold reimagination by Woo is arguably more in line with the Enlightenment ideals than Goethe’s version.

While Faust/Us may not have ensemble scenes that have become a signature of NYT’s productions, Woo does tap into the ensemble training that the actors go through with occasional synchronised movements, and having Grett glide across the space as God tries to convince Faust to come to his side.

Mia Chee balances between Faust’s ambition and her emotional vulnerability wonderfully, imbuing the titular character with more complexity.

Timothy Wan’s Mephistopheles is quick-witted with a sharp tongue to match. Wan plays off Chee very well, charming her every step of the way. It is easy to see why anyone would root for the devil for most of the show.

Neo Hai Bin endears himself to the audience with his earnest portrayal of the fruit seller, while sending students giggling when Grett and Faust are in the first blushes of love.

Hang Qian Chou does not leave much of an impression as God, but elicits sympathy as Wagner, Faust’s faithful friend.

It is difficult to stage a spectacle of cosmic proportions in such a small space. But lighting designer Adrian Tan and sound designer Zai Tang makes do by signalling a chance of space with coloured lights strategically fixed on to the set (designed by Petrina Dawn Tan) or a layered soundscape.

The creative team must be commended for managing to create a foreboding atmosphere when Mephistopheles suddenly appears without resorting to the age-old trick of smoke machines.

When she first appears, Faust laments that all human achievement will turn to dust eventually, and we are merely piling dust on layers of dust.

Woo responds by clearing away centuries of dust and allowing us to view this tale afresh, while offering a glimmer of hope to the seemingly Sisyphean struggle that is life.

Other Reviews

“Theatre review: FAUST/US by Nine Years Theatre is fiendishly good” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life! 

“She Creates: Nine Years Theatre’s ‘FAUST/US 浮世/德'” by Daniel Teo, Arts Equator

“The Spectacular Mundane in Faust/Us by Teo Xiao Ting, Centre 42 Citizens’ Review

“Review: FAUST/US (浮世/德) by Nine Years Theatre” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

[Theatre Review] Goddesses of Words —Tussling Between Advocacy and Poetry

Goddesses of Words—Sarojini Naidu
Grace Kalaiselvi
23 March 2019, 8 p.m.
Play Den, Arts House
21‒24 March 2019

 Goddesses of Words—Sarojini Naidu by playwright and director Grace Kalaiselvi hits a snag quite early on.

In an early scene, we are told sexual assault includes lewd comments and jokes. Shouldn’t that be classified under sexual harassment? Shouldn’t the differences between both terms matter?

Initially conceived to explore works by Indian female poets writing in English before evolving into one about sexual assault, the work finds itself caught between advocacy and poetry, rather than combining both aspects in a cohesive whole.

Its advocacy efforts consist of preachy scenes and skits such as telling us how we are complicit in “rape culture” with our words; that there is no clothing that is rape-proof; and not forcing others to eat briyani as an analogy about consent.

While the whole spectacle is fun and tongue-in-cheek, one wonders who it is meant for. In one segment, the audience has to indicate whether certain statements are appropriate through holding up the programme booklets, which has a red background on the front and green on the back. However, the statements are so ludicrously inappropriate that one just holds up the red background all the way and tune out.

As well-meaning as those segments are, it really is an exercise in preaching to the choir. Malicious abusers are without scruples, and will not recant if they were to watch this. But for the majority of us, who may say something insensitive unknowingly, or misread signals in the heat of the moment, the show is too simplistic and does not address these issues.

In fact, I found the post-show dialogue to be more enlightening and nuanced. But a show should stand on its own rather than be a prelude for the post-show dialogue.

As for the poetry, Grace and her cast (Pramila Krishnasamy, Mumtaz Maricar, and Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai) made a judicious choice in selecting the poems of Sarojini Naidu. Through movement sequences; drawings; and turning the verses into song, these segments are evocative and poignant. This is complemented by the haunting flute playing by Raghavendran Rajasekaran.

While the poems are not about sexual assault, the images of struggle and hurt makes it seem as if the poet is reaching across the ages to tell the women that she understands what they are going through.

To top it all off, the performers then perform monologues detailing actual stories of assault, including their own. The deliveries of the monologues are relatively cautious, as if they are too painful for the actors to delve into. This is a wasted opportunity as the stories are not told to its full potential.

That said, one cannot deny the effect the show has on the audience. A few audience members walked up to the performers to hug them, and some can be seen crying.

While one hopes that the show gives those affected a certain sense of consolation, the dramaturgical and artistic merits of the show must be assessed independently of the audience’s reaction in this case.

Other Reviews

“Review: Goddesses of Words – Sarojini Naidu by Grace Kalaiselvi” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

[Theatre Review] The Weight of Silk on Skin

The Weight of Silk on Skin
Checkpoint Theatre
Drama Centre Theatre
3–7 August 2011

They say that you can never forget your one true love and no matter what you have achieved, nothing matters if she is not here. Sulaiman’s latest offering of “The Weight of Silk on Skin” for this year’s Man Singapore Theatre Festival certainly provides an intimate insight into the male psyche with regards to love, sex, career and the arduous journey called life.

John Au Yong is the envy of every man. Rich, stylish, educated and rakish. Having achieved everything that one could wish for, he revisits his life of blossoming romance, lost love, empty affairs and sexual intrigue. And through it all, he still can’t forget Anna, a girl whom he met in college and could never forget. After 25 years, both of them are single again. Will John be able to reclaim this lost love of his or will Anna be a fond but painful memory?

By all accounts, The Weight of Silk on Skin is a raw beauty. The relationship between playwright, actor, director and audience has never been so palpable in this one man show. Sulaiman’s witty and thought provoking script is like a prism. While the input may be the storyline of meditation and reclaiming lost love, it sheds light on so many aspects of not only a man’s life but even life as a Singaporean.

It is amazing how the script is able to capture snatches of life and even become a chronological indicator as there are references to the music of the time periods and the advent of technology when John mentions merely being friends on Facebook with his ex wife. The recurrent metaphor of clothes not only provided a sartorial education but it brings across the idea of the pretense we put on and strip away in different stages of our life.

Ivan Heng certainly did justice to the exciting script with his impeccable portrayal. His acting is nuanced and thoughtful. His account of his life transists from moment to moment with great ease while bringing about a different and renewed energy to each scene. Additionally, he was able to switch his vernacular and accent with ease when the lines shift from standard English to local expressions. His control over his voice, movement and stance is commendable as even when there was a major disturbance from the audience as the latecomers were entering the theatre, he never faltered and carried on with the show. This is certainly admirable as the chances of being thrown off is greatly multiplied when it is a one man show. Heng’s involvement in this production is a masterclass for all aspiring actors.

As the play closes and Heng cuts a Bond-esque look with him in a tuxedo, his final imploration of forgiveness is without a doubt, the most poignant moment of the show. The two words, “forgive me” set within a bare stage and raw lighting certainly emphasised of how John, while dressed to the nines, is stripped bare of all pretense and the only desire now is to atone for his mistakes and reclaim his one true love.

This show undoubtedly entertains but more importantly, it provokes some soul searching and perhaps a hard look at the lives of men; their impulses and desires. A great exposition of how men work.


This review was first published on the blog, Essential Culture. As it is now defunct, I have republished it here as a backdated post.