[Theatre Review] Taking Stock of Locks and Barriers

Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

Two Songs and a Story
Checkpoint Theatre
Online, Sistic Live
6–31 August 2020

Apart from being a health crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned out to be a life audit. We are forced to reëvaluate all aspects of our lives and confront uncomfortable truths that we would rather conveniently forget.

For Checkpoint Theatre, they cancelled their first production of the 2020 season and turned The Heart Comes to Mind and A Grand Design into audio presentations. Two Songs and a Story marks the company’s first major production conceived to be presented online in adherence to the government’s guidelines.

As the title suggests, we get five writer-performers taking stock of certain aspects of their lives with a monologue largely bookended with two songs.

While the format may sound like an open mic gig on film, directors Huzir Sulaiman and Joel Lim worked closely with the performers and the cinematography to ensure diverse and surprising modes of presentations.

ants chua performing “at least i have words now” / Photo: Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

In “at least i have words now”, ants chua explores the dynamics of friendships vis-à-vis romantic relationships and how the former is much more ambiguous with lack of rituals and clear markers of beginnings and endings.

It is a wise choice to anchor the monologue with a childhood story about making friends on the school bus as a reflection—and almost an allegory—of the friendships made and lost later in life. The situation is simple enough to understand, but there is a sense that one carries a certain naïveté into later life, which results in hurting others. This is in stark contrast to chua’s insightful analysis of the difference between romance and friendships—a realisation for which chua has the words to articulate now.

chua’s restrained performance allows the text to breathe and sink in as we inevitably reflect on our own friendships.

Inch Chua performing “Super Q” / Photo: Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

It is easy to think of Inch Chua as a singer, but if her consistent forays into theatre over the past few years is not enough to rid you of the idea that she is merely “dipping her toes” in the theatre industry, then “Super Q” should do the trick.

Chua plunges into the heart of the COVID-19 crisis by relaying her experiences as a volunteer in sanitising operations. The disjuncture between the comforts of her home and the seemingly draconian measures at the workers’ dormitories is disconcerting to say the least.

Chua’s experimentation with rhythm and poetry in her text enhances the emotions of frustration and confusion it evokes. This is complemented by the cuts and lighting design in the way the video was edited.

If the first piece is contemplative, Chua is on the other end as she bores into your heart with original songs written for the show. She cries: “All this must mean something more / when you have the privilege to be bored.”

Jo Tan performing “A Bit” / Photo: Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

Ever since the success of Forked (2019), Jo Tan has been prolific in writing and performing monologues that feature quirky characters, but their experiences or desires reveal something insightful about the circumstances that we live in.

In “A Bit”, Tan plays Bit Wah. An unassuming office lady who gets through life merely doing what is expected of her. While her lack of ambition makes her existence seems mechanical, she finds solace in her favourite anime.

Tan’s comic timing makes this short piece a joy to watch, and the ending is oddly entertaining.

To a culture that glorifies productivity, watching anime may seem frivolous. But if all that hustling is akin to the conformity of the grey skyscrapers of Tokyo, perhaps Bit Wah has a point in wanting life to be a little bit more colourful.

Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai performing “And Then I Am Light” / Photo: Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai’s “And Then I Am Light” is a refreshing change as the diagonal angle of the shot and the breezy delivery of her monologue feels like a casual interview as compared to the performative nature of the other pieces.

On the whole, it is heartfelt and life-affirming as she comes to terms with being able to accept herself and move on from her trauma of her childhood and past relationships.

However, with the breezy delivery and tight pacing of the editing, one does not feel the full gravity of her words. This results in the piece losing some of its bite as it sometimes feels like a behind-the-scenes interview for a sleek music video.

This is a pity as the potential of the monochromatic shot of her monologue transiting into full-blown colour when she sings in a beautiful blue costume with embroidery is lost. However, the option of turning on the captions and reading the text does compensate a little.

That said, this does not completely detract from the heart of the piece and Rebekah’s luscious vocals is always a treat.

weish performing “Be Here, With Me” / Photo: Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

Fresh from her collaboration with Checkpoint Theatre on Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner (2019), weish takes centre stage in “Be Here, With Me”. An evocative performance about her struggles with trying to get over a traumatic experience.

In her music practice, weish uses live loops of singing, vocal percussion, and instrumentation. While we see that here, it not merely a transposition of her forte into this piece. Instead, the live loops that are present in her songs and monologue become a soundscape of her mind.

This allows us to see how she tries to appear normal so not as to burden others, while desperately wanting affirmations from others, even though she knows that it does not assuage her insecurities, self-doubt, and blame.

Having the camera suddenly charge up to her face-on after her opening song is uncomfortably confrontational, but it creates a sense that she is speaking directly to us as a particular person rather than an audience in general.

This is an inspired move as we then get to see her slowly crumble as she tries to explain herself and her experience—a rather different side of her as compared to the one who is in absolute control of the sonic textures, rhythms, and tempo when she is singing.

Despite its seemingly simple premise, Two Songs and a Story proves that Checkpoint Theatre is equally adept at bringing their brand of producing local works for the digital medium.

Other Reviews

“Theatre review: Checkpoint Theatre’s Two Songs And A Story presents intimate, heartbreaking monologues” by Olivia Ho, The Straits Times Life!  
♦ Article is behind a paywall. 

Resources

Two Songs and a Story: Artist Dialogue

[Listing] BODY X : The Culprit

After two successful runs in 2014 (BODY X The Wedding) and 2016 (BODY X The Rehearsal), BODY X returns with a brand new murder-mystery online: BODY X The Culprit.

This happened 35 years ago during the economic crisis of the mid-1980s.

Lacking substantial evidence, the case was left unsolved.

 

While tackling the challenges of an unprecedented recession and rapid business decline,

a neighbourhood kopitiam had to face another murderous impact —

a Regular Patron was found dead outside the shop in the early morning,

lying face-down at his usual spot.

 

All who were in contact with him the previous night

—Big Boss, Kopi Auntie, Cleaner, Beer Girl, Stall-owner—

had valid alibi and were not at the scene of the crime.

However, they all had disagreements with the victim before.

 

Was it an accident? Or is the murderer one of them?

Body X is a pioneering immersive-interactive Mandarin murder-mystery in Singapore theatre. An original and innovative theatrical format conceived and created by seasoned theatre practitioners, Li Xie and Danny Yeo. Both directors emphasised that the 2020 online version should retain important features—the involvement of and the autonomy in choice-making for the audience, the exploration of performance space, as well as the experimentation of unknown theatrical practices.  

So, are you behind-the-scene or in-the-scene? You decide. 

Come traverse through time and space to help solve this murder-mystery with us… this time, virtually. 


Body X The Culprit runs from 9–13 September 2020 via Zoom. Performed in Mandarin with no subtitles. Tickets from $18 at Peatix

Teater Ekamatra presents Baca Skrip: #_____

In an unexpected turn of events, rather than worrying about creating new works through a digital medium, Teater Ekamatra decides to team up with veteran theatre producer Fezhah Maznan to look back at key works in Malay theatre through a series called Baca Skrip: #______.

Baca Skrip is a monthly online script read of Malay plays by prolific Malay playwrights from Singapore. The scripts are selected based on their impact on Singapore Malay theatre history and / or are representative of the chosen playwright’s oeuvre.

Each session will be accompanied with an introduction which provides a sense of the historical, social, political, and cultural context of the work. After the reading, a critical response will be given by an invited guest. This is meant to provide audience several ways of looking at the work.

This series serves to rekindle the work with today’s Malay theatre audience and create a sense of continued history for Singapore Malay theatre in general.

First Session (29 May, 8 p.m.)

Baca Skrip: #HantaranBuatMangsaLupa

Genap 40 (read by Shida Mahadi and Izzul Irfan)

Hawa, who is pregnant, receives a premonition that she will meet Malaikat (angel) on the 39th day, where she hopes to enquire about the fate of her child and her self; revealing her true desire to challenge predestination.  

W.C. (read by Mish’aal Syed Nasar and KayKay Nizam) 

Two mean in a toilet cubicle. 

They talk, but not a lot. 

They touch but not too much. 

Only the four walls bear witness to their dispositions. 

W.C. was created to examine the complexities between men—abandonment, trust, and maybe even love. It speaks of comfort and sacrifice, or lack thereof. 

94:05 (read by Fir Rahman) 

94:05 invites the audience to the life and memories of Ahmad bin Abdullah. As he tidies his studio apartment, Ahmad finds it hard not to reminisce. He shares with us every important juncture he has passed through, slowly revealing his struggles with fate. Every now and then he contemplates mortality, especially in moments when hope becomes fleeting. 


Performed in Malay with accompanying Malay text and English surtitles.

Tickets at $10 from Peatix.

[Interview] Director Phillip Zarrilli and Playwright Kaite O’Reilly on Lie With Me

Come November, the graduating cohort of the Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI) will be presenting the Asian premier of Kaite O’Reilly’s Lie with Me.

Originally set in London, this production will be localised to look at contemporary life in Singapore through glimpses into the lives of eight young people, exploring issues such as the evolving ‘rules’ of sexual encounters in a ‘swipe right’ culture, and the ways in which people survive and form genuine relationships in an increasingly unstable and consumerist society.

To find out more about the show and the creative process, I spoke to O’Reilly (KOR) and director Phillip Zarrilli (PZ).

Continue reading

Taking It To The Next Level

My career as a theatre critic started in university when I chanced upon Kent Ridge Common, an online student-run publication, which offered ample opportunities to review shows.

Two years later, I signed up for a module on theatre criticism offered by the theatre studies department at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Being equipped with certain theoretical frameworks, challenged to write reviews for different media, and having to read them aloud to approximately thirty people really forced me to consider my voice as a critic, who my reader was, and what my functions are.

The course led me to convert this website to solely focus on the arts and to sign up as a citizen reviewer for Centre 42 from 2014 till today.

In the past five years, I have gained more confidence and am increasingly aware of my artistic tastes and the sort of critic that I want to be. Having practised this craft for half a decade, it is time to take it further—it is time to be a professional independent theatre critic.

What Does This Mean?

The fundamental change would be to strive to turn this craft into a source of revenue amongst other artistic pursuits. Your support will enable me to broaden my coverage to include more long-form interviews and profiles, dance reviews, and even book reviews.

My reviews will always be public and free for all to read. Your support will determine the breadth and depth of my coverage, and supporters will receive bonus content.

Editorially, I will be stricter on developing a house style. I will take my cue from Mr Hart by referring to New Hart’s Rules. I will depart from a few of his recommendations purely out of personal preference.

In terms of work flow, I will try to publish my review within a week of watching the show. I have no intention of being the first, for there are many others who are adept at that. Rather, I shall follow the footsteps of Mr Kenneth Tynan and “write for posterity” as much as it is meant for the present.

Why Does It Matter?

Arts criticism is part of the arts ecology. Artists aim to inspire, provoke, comfort, or entertain their audience. Criticism is thus an articulated response to the work. It is the opening salvo; the first hand in the air.

With arts funding in Singapore still largely reliant on state funding, the perennial question is, What do the people want or need? Artists and authorities have been justifying their aims in response to this question without answering a more fundamental one: Who constitutes “the people?”

Hence, my reviews seek to be a platform from which theatre-goers can respond to and articulate their opinions. After all, in an incredibly realistic country such as Singapore, for someone to invest time and money into something counts a lot.

I also seek to document these debates as one indicator of what the people want.

How Can I Support You?

Regardless of who you are, there are several ways that you can support me. All the details can be found on this page.

Apart from doing this as a regular gig, the ultimate goal is to be able to commission other writers on a regular basis and pay them at market rates. While much have been said about the need for arts criticism, proper opportunities are very few and far between.

But beyond financial or in-kind support, an equally important contribution is to really respond to my reviews. Tell me your opinions about the show. Even if it is a response to a particular point I made, it is very helpful for all involved.

I look forward to having you on this new journey with me.

[Listing] Fun Home by Pangdemonium!

To round off their 2017 Season, Pangdemonium is performing FUN HOME, the stunning musical about a family that’s nothing like yours and exactly like yours.

Based on Alison Bechdel’s best-selling graphic memoir, the piece interacts with Bechdel at three different ages. Moving between past and present, it reveals her unique childhood, a growing understanding of her own sexuality and how she handles her uniquely dysfunctional family. FUN HOME is a gripping portrayal of a daughter’s determination to connect with her volatile, brilliant father whose temperament and secrets have defined her family and her life.

“FUN HOME is an exhilarating, heart wrenching, and moving musical which will resonate with anyone who has ever felt different, even within their own family. The story—based on real life experiences of Alison Bechdel—is a roller-coaster of comedy and tragedy, and the songs are sublimely beautiful. Be prepared for a truly unique and unforgettable musical theatre experience.” said Adrian and Tracie Pang, Artistic Directors of Pangdemonium.

Winner of five Tony Awards, including Best Score and Best Book, the haunting melodies of Jeanine Tesori and poetic lyrics of Lisa Kron set a foundation for this refreshingly honest musical.

Starring Adrian Pang, Monique Wilson, Nikki Muller, Elena Wang, Benjamin Kheng, Gail Belmonte, Chloe Choo, Elly Gaskell, Aria Zhang, Damien Weber, and Bjorn Haakenson.

Named Best Musical of the Year by the New York Times, FUN HOME is a daring and innovative work about seeing your parents through grown up eyes. The Singaporean debut of this intimate and emotional theatrical experience is not to be missed!

FUN HOME runs from 29 September–15 October at the Drama Centre Theatre, Rated R18, Tickets from Sistic

[Theatre Review] A Decent and Modest Epic

Photo: Metropolitan Productions

The LKY Musical
Metropolitan Productions
30 July 2015
Sands Theatre, Marina Bay Sands
21 July – 16 August 2015

To call The LKY Musical a biopic about Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, is a misnomer. It is a portmanteau consisting of biography and motion picture. However, if we were to exercise some poetic license and see it as a biographical epic, it is somewhat apt.

I say somewhat because it spans an epic sweep of historical events but its staging does not match up to it. For starters, the Sands Theatre is badly designed. With its small stage, grey interiors, and bad acoustics, it feels like someone decided to convert a warehouse into a “theatre” on a whim. It is clearly designed for cheap entertainment and artistry is a mere afterthought—like belching after drinking too much beer from a plastic cup.

To deal with space constraints, set designer takis makes use of every inch with a three-level structure that has six rooms. Toss in sliding screens with projections and the audience is whizzed from a shelter where rickshaw pullers reside to Lee’s residence in Cambridge.

Yet, ingenuity can only go so far.

The actors are visibly hemmed in by whatever remains of downstage and the size of each room. To make matters worse, the major events from Lee at Raffles leading up to his time in Cambridge zipped past at breakneck speed. The ensemble could hardly settle into their roles and it is merely a notch above someone walking across the stage with a flashcard saying “Japanese Occupation” and sounds of bombs going off in the background.

Despite these flaws, this musical scores enough brownie points to warrant more than two hours of your time if you have some to spare.

Adrian Pang’s versatility truly knows no bounds. While he does not adopt every single behavioural tick of Lee Kuan Yew, he exudes Lee’s unmistakable presence when delivering a political speech. With his body tilted at an angle and chest puffed up, he marshals voters to the polling station as he goes head on against his former comrade turned opponent, Lim Chin Siong.

Benjamin Chow’s Lim Chin Siong certainly matches up to Pang’s Lee. Rather than play the radical hothead as described in history textbooks, Chow’s Lim possesses political cunning and daring which makes him a formidable opponent of Lee Kuan Yew. Chow must also be commended for his ability to maintain his Chinese accented English when singing without compromising on his diction.

Radhi Khalid’s Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaya’s Prime Minister, is a nice counterpoint to Lee Kuan Yew. Khalid’s gentle cadences as he glides effortlessly through his lines is contrasted with Pang’s pointed attack—an indication of Lee’s no-nonsense approach to politics. While Tunku’s insistence on playing poker rather than discussing politics may be superficially read as insouciance, it is a gentle insistence on the incompatibility of Lee’s egalitarian ideals and Tunku’s racial politics. To discuss it further would unnecessarily sour the already tenuous relationship.

Other notable performers are Sebestian Tan as Teong Koo the optimistic rickshaw puller and Vester Ng as Ng Kai, the naïve and eager union leader of the rickshaw pullers. While Edward Choy (Goh Keng Swee), Dayal Gian Singh (Rajaratnam), and Tan Shou Chen (Toh Chin Chye) gave credible performances in their supporting roles, it is a waste that their characters are not developed further which is an injustice to the legacies of these giants in Singapore history.

Sharon Au as Lee’s wife, Kwa Geok Choo, is clearly doing her best. Unfortunately, her best is not enough as her studied approach and weak singing makes it look as if the decision to cast her is to boost ticket sales by luring her fans to the theatre.

While Dick Lee’s music heightens the atmosphere at important points, the styles are too varied for one to discern a particular motif that defines the musical. Stephen Clark offers witty lyrics such as Lee describing one of the reason he loves his wife is that she is supportive and often makes her ideas seemed like his. However, due to the dismal acoustics of the venue or incompatible levels on the sound console, one will miss it unless an effort is taken to listen intently.

With Lee Kuan Yew’s recent demise and the excitement of the upcoming election, the musical is inextricably tangled over concerns of its historical accuracy and intent. My colleagues seem to adopt either an apologist stance or deem that the musical as an unsuitable genre.

The LKY Musical depicts events as it happened generally and is careful not to over-valourise the man—it neither beats the drum of the official narrative nor poses a distinct challenge to it. Additionally, it has no pretentions of showing “The Singapore Story” which is made abundantly clear through its uninspiring title. As an art work, it generally entertains and I have detailed where it is lacking.

The performing arts cannot replace the work of the historians which is where you should go for nuances and interpretations of events. At the very least, one hopes that it sparks an interest in those whose only acquaintance with the narrative is through the stilted words of a heavily regulated history textbook.

Other Reviews

“Theatre review: Adrian Pang turns in a stirring performance in The LKY Musical by Corrie Tan, The Straits Times Life! 

“Theatre review: The LKY Musical by Naeem Kapadia, Today

“Review: The LKY Musical by Gwen Pew, Time Out Singapore

“A Missed Opportunity” by Andre Theng, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

“Defying detractors, LKY Musical gets standing ovation” by Lisa Twang, The New Paper

“Does the LKY Musical live up to the Man?” by Crystal Nanavati, Sassy Mama

“{Review} The LKY Musical – A Night to Stand Proud and be Inspired” by Audrey, Says! Happy Mums

The LKY Musical by Mummybean, Life is in the Small Things

“Theatre Review (Singapore): ‘The LKY Musical’” by Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam, BlogCritics

The LKY Musical – Review” by Campus Magazine

“Sylvia Toh Reviews The LKY Musical by Sylvia Toh, superadrianme

The LKY Musical — A Musical We’re Proud to Call Our Own” by David Sim, Life’s Tiny Miracles

The LKY Musical: The history of Chinese men’s Singapore” by Kirsten Han, The Online Citizen

The LKY Musical: A Bold Account of Singapore’s Founding Father” by Reuel Eugene, Reuel Writes

[Theatre Review] A Celebration of Two Countries

Photo: Wong Horng Yih, Courtesy of W!ld Rice

Photo: Wong Horng Yih, Courtesy of W!ld Rice

Another Country
W!ld Rice
27 June 2015
Drama Centre Theatre
25 June–11 July 2015

”If only at one point our hands could clasp,

What rich variety and gesture could be ours.”

~ Dance by Fadzilah Amin

Like any love-hate relationship, Singapore and Malaysia have often come to fisticuffs. But in Another Country, we waved at our cousins, raced across the room, pulled them up, and danced with them.

We danced to the melodies and sentiments excavated from the texts of both countries that span five centuries. Drawing from literature, interviews, and even legal documents, Alfian Sa’at intricately weaves together the text for Sayang Singapura while Leow Puay Tin does the same for Tikam-Tikam: Malaysia@Random 2.

The Malaysian ensemble (Ghafir Akabar, Sharifah Amani, Anne James, Alfred Loh, Iedil Putra) interprets the Singaporean texts and the Singaporean ensemble (Sharida Harrison, Lim Yu-Beng, Gani Karim, Janice Koh, Siti Khalijah Zainal) performs the Malaysian texts.

What emerges is a beautiful testament to the rich cultural resources we share that present a socio-historical account of the concerns that the writers had. This compels the audience to re-look at their own stories from a fresh perspective while listening and learning more about the other side.

The curators must be applauded for picking texts which not only cover events running up to the merger or just after the separation, but also broach uncomfortable topics.

Notable selections from the Malaysian corpus include Tunku Abdul Rahman dreaming of a bad omen which preceded the race riots in Malaysia, Amir Muhammed’s 120 Malay Movies which discusses Singapore marking the start of the national narrative at 1965 and parallels that with the Malaysians not acknowledging their cultural roots from the Hindu empires of old, and the self-reflexive The Myths that Cloak Our Theatre by Krishen Jit which criticises the industry for the lack of community theatre projects and turning theatre into a polished product meant for the middle classes to consume.

The Singapore selection explores political censure, among other topics, by choosing The Campaign to Confer the Public Service Star on JBJ by Eleanor Wong, Fear of Writing by Tan Tarn How, and Gemuk Girls by Haresh Sharma. The most interesting choice of them all is Elangovan’s Talaq which portrays how some Indian-Muslim husbands intentionally misinterpret Islamic principles to justify their infidelity and subjugation of their brides from India. I was surprised that the Media Development Authority allowed this to pass given that they banned the original performance of the English script.  I hope that the audience would be compelled to read the play in full and judge it for themselves.

The possible dialogues sparked off by this production would not have been possible without the brilliant performances by both ensembles. Their talent and versatility are clear for all to see as they are able to smoothly transit between texts that have very different demands and characters. The actors are also able to command the stage during their individual scenes and immediately reintegrate back as an organic whole once that is over. I would not be surprised if this production gets a nomination for best ensemble at the Life! Theatre Awards and it will be such a lovely gift to the Malaysian actors as well.

This project needs to be revisited every decade and updated with new and exciting writing. Apart from the texts we have, future iterations should boldly experiment with performance practices and forms. Who knows? Perhaps we could develop a performance vocabulary unique to both sides of the causeway—our own artistic secret handshake.

Other Reviews

“Theatre Review: Wild Rice’s ‘Another Country'” by Mayo Martin, Malay Mail

“Review: Another Country” by Gwen Pew, Time Out Singapore

“It’s a small world after all” by Andre Theng, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

“REVIEW: ‘ANOTHER COUNTRY’ – NO PASSPORT NEEDED, ART TRANSFORMATIVE!” by Ann Lee, The Daily Seni

“Another Country by W!ld Rice Review – Proving the Singapore-Malaysia Causeway Isn’t Too Much Of A Divide” by Scott Lur, The Smart Local