[Theatre Review] Awkward Company

Pangdemonium’s Late Company unearths uncomfortable truths about cyber-bullying.

Late Company
Pangdemonium!
22 February 2019
Victoria Theatre
22 February‒10 March 2019

“It takes a village…” It is rare for a play’s bigoted character to utter something which sends the whole audience recoiling in horror, while bearing a kernel of truth.

For Jordan Tannahill’s Late Company, it is Bill, whose son, Curtis, was one of many who bullied Joel online because of his sexuality. This results in Joel’s suicide.

Bill (Adrian Pang) may have uttered those words to selfishly protect his son (Xander Pang) from the perceived siege by Joel’s parents, Debora (Janice Koh) and Michael (Edward Choy).

But if we could put aside our knee-jerk reactions of yelling “victim-blaming” or “toxic masculinity”, as if they were incantations to cast out the demon of bigotry, is it just a simple equation of Curtis’s cyber-bullying leading to Joel’s suicide?

Set over the course of dinner hosted by Debora and Michael in the hopes of seeking closure with Bill, his wife Tamara (Karen Tan), and Curtis, Late Company brilliantly fleshes out an awkward encounter that is true-to-life, while raising pertinent questions, some of which are barely heard in discourses about cyber-bullying and suicides of LGBT teens.

Closure is never to be found with Debora wanting a sense of sincere remorse from Curtis (what that is, no one knows), while Tamara wanting everyone to get along. The chaotic mix is finished off with the two fathers, who do not believe in the purpose of the dinner to start with, crossing swords. Bill insinuates that Edward, who is a politician, is an absent father and is currently exploiting his son’s death for political gain. Edward parries by accusing Bill of callousness and selfishness.

Despite the ostensibly confrontational nature of this palaver, issues are skirted around, and the adults are none the wiser by the end of it all. It is through this awkward mess of human frailties and contradictions that director Tracie Pang manages to coax a fine piece of naturalistic acting from the cast.

Janice Koh as the sculptor and bereaved Debora sensitively navigates the currents of contradictory emotions that hits her as the evening unfolded. Edward Choy’s portrayal of the reticent Michael is an anchor to Debora’s unravelling. Adrian Pang occasionally hems it up as Bill and belligerently exploits Debora’s and Michael’s oversight as to what Joel was doing online in order to protect his son.  Karen Tan excels as the well-meaning, but unsophisticated Tamara who naïvely thinks all will be well as long as everyone tries to get along.

That said, I am not so sure about Xander Pang’s Curtis. Even though Curtis has very few lines, Pang still has room for interpretation. Is Curtis just keeping his head down till the storm blows over? Is he annoyed by his parents? Is he hiding behind his father? Does he want to reach out to Joel’s parents, but not quite sure how? Pang’s approach is unclear here. What my colleagues see as “sullen”, I see as inactivity safe for the scene in which he reveals his nightmare.

Yet, even though Curtis has few words, his apparent justification of his annoyance with Joel, the latter goes around greeting everyone, “Hey faggot!”, should be a pause for thought.

While this annoyance is never a justification for bullying, where is the line between being confident in one’s sexuality, and being excessively provocative? If Joel is merely acting out due to a sense of repression, how best should his parents help him? Is Joel never at fault in all instances simply because he has died and is part of a minority?

What about Curtis? Where does his fault end? What is an adequate punishment for him? Is he acting out, however misguided it may be, in some way?

How then should we stop cyber-bullying? How should we go about “educating” people not to bully others? Is that even effective?

All of these complex questions relate to the line I quoted to start the review. The chief merit of Tannahill’s play is to warn us not to be Tamaras, but to try and tackle these questions with honesty and in their full complexity.

Other Reviews

“Theatre review: A deep look at bullying and suicide” by Ong Sor Fen, The Straits Times Life! (*Only for subscribers to the newspaper)

Late Company: Nothing’s Normal (About Suicide)” by Cheryl Tan, Popspoken

Late Company by Naeem Kapadia, Crystalworlds

Late Company is just in time” by Lee Shu Yu, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

“Review: Late Company by Pangdemonium” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

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[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

Four Questions with Director Tracie Pang on Rent

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Photo: Crispian Chan / Courtesy of Pangdemonium

To close its 2016 season, Pangdemonium has gathered a star-studded cast to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the hit musical, Rent. I conducted an email interview with director Tracie Pang to find out more about Pangdemonium’s take on the show.

Rent is the final show of Pangdemonium’s “Season of Love.” Why was the theme of love chosen for this year and why Rent?

Coming out of 2015 where the refugee crisis really started to make the news, the pieces we were drawn to had love centrally and squarely in their themes in one way or another. Rent ended up just being a natural end to the season plus with it being the 20th anniversary of Rent the timing was fitting. It was a seminal piece of theatre and a game changer when it opened. There is also a whole generation of people here who haven’t seen it as they were too young given that it has always been given a R18 rating in Singapore.

Caroline Framke from Vox.com thinks that Rent feels outdated because it “leans so heavily on grunge and generic alt-rock.”  Do you agree? Apart from the message, is there anything in particular about this staging that would appeal to today’s audience?

You could say that about any musical over 20 years old, should we not produce West Side Story or Singing in the Rain because it is dated? I would beg to offer a different perspective. This musical cannot be transported out of the time and place that it was set; it is indicative of the time and struggles of what was happening in ’89/90. It is in the music, the instrumentation and the story line. What is important is to look at how it had an influence on musicals that came after it with small bands, scaled down sets and gritty storylines.

Without Rent, musicals would not have progressed to the likes of Next to Normal where the rock edge in the music helps to connect to our emotions, our modern stories, and today’s generation in a more immediate and instinctual way. The story line in Rent is still very important and so its relevance is still key — diverse communities coming together in love through adversity. Accepting others who are different from ourselves and offering help and love. HIV may not be the death sentence that it was 20 years ago. We have treatments that work now, but it has not been eradicated and once you have it—you will live with it and have to medicate for the rest of your life.

Pangdemonium is known for engaging with community partners as part of its research and advocacy efforts. What are some surprising facts about AIDS that you learnt in the course of preparing for the show? 

Many of today’s youth are not aware of AIDS and HIV, the awareness of the virus has died down and we hope that this musical will go some way to reminding us that our new generations need to be kept aware. In the last 35 years, more than 70 million people have been infected with the HIV virus, and about 35 million people have died of HIV-related illnesses. Globally, approximately 36.7 million people are still living with HIV today. Singapore is not immune to this disease and we have met young people living with the disease on our journey with Rent. With this in mind,  we will be having a post-show dialogue with a representative from Action for Aids and Oogachaga for two shows on Wednesday nights (they have been given an advisory 16 rating so that teens and families can attend the show).

If you could change one aspect of our society in an instant, what would it be?

Fear. Fear of foreigners, fear of strangers, fear of people who are from a different ethnic or religious group. To be more accepting, welcoming and loving. As the good book says, love thy neighbour!

RENT runs from 7-23 October 2016 at the Drama Centre Theatre. Tickets from Sistic.