06 February 2015

Tartuffe

by Molière
translated and adapted by Nelson Chia
Nine Years Theatre
Gallery Theatre, National Museum of Singapore

Nine Years Theatre's Mandarin versions of world classics are always a pleasure to watch, a homage to fine storytelling and solid theatrical craft. In this first production of the year, Artistic Director Nelson Chia directs his own translation and adaptation of Molière's classic 1664 comedy Tartuffe. The tale is simple enough: family patriarch Orgon (Darius Tan) is so utterly taken in by the ways and words of religious charlatan Tartuffe (Hang Qian Chou) that his family is in despair. He agrees to marry his already-engaged daughter (Jean Toh) to the hypocrite and when his son (Neo Hai Bin) casts aspersions on Tartuffe's character, he disowns him without a second thought. Subsequently, his wife (Mia Chee) conspires to reveal Tartuffe's true colours to her husband before he signs away his entire fortune to the man.

Now this isn't the first time we've seen Molière on stage in recent years: in 2012 World-in-Theatre presented a colourful, decidedly whimsical version of this play titled That Clown Called Tartuffe, while HuM Theatre gave us a modern, multi-racial version of The Miser called The Kanjoos. Yet while the Nine Years Theatre production had the potential to truly sparkle and better the other two, it unfortunately proves simply too straight and safe, lacking the comic bite one so desperately needs from a French farce.


Chia directs with sensitivity and keeps the pacing tight despite the lack of an intermission. He also does a good job with the translation, clothing the play with natural, elegant Mandarin dialogue while remaining faithful to Molière's text and the original character and place names. In line with the Brechtian aesthetic Chia lately seems fond of, the actors stand in a row at the start and introduce the characters they are playing, offstage entrances and exits are witnessed clearly and the audience is constantly made aware of the fact that they are watching a dramatic construct - from having a female actress play a male role to having one of the actors playing two different characters. The light, instrumental music and minimalist set enhance the simple pared-down presentation.

A good farce is characterised by the gales of laughter that emerge from the crowds and the gradual build-up of scenes to a point of near delirium as events spiral hopelessly out of control. This version, instead, plays out like a staid Victorian drawing room comedy. A scene involving Orgon's daughter and her fiancé, where mutual misunderstandings threaten to tear the couple apart, barely generates a few titters because it is played so straight. Even the iconic scene where Tartuffe attempts to seduce Elmire in front of a concealed Orgon hardly brings the house down like it should.

The problem seems to be the fact that the actors have not really embraced the camp exuberance of the farcical form and play their roles with too much studied earnestness. One longs for a little naughtiness or meaty melodrama in their exchanges but this never comes. Jalyn Han is one of the only actors who revels in her role as saucy, sharp-tongued maid Dorine, milking her scenes for all she is worth and throwing in some very amusing facial expressions. The others do a competent job but rarely make a real impact. I particularly longed for Tan (considering his strong comic background) to exploit his character for laughs just a little more.


One also wonders whether it might have been a missed opportunity not to re-contextualise the play to a slightly more modern, even local setting. The idea of people being swayed by the words of a charismatic religious leader certainly smells familiar in our little part of the world and it would have been a nice idea to anchor this very French tale in the Singaporean milieu rather than merely offering a faithful but otherwise uninspired translation.

Finally, a quick note on the surtitles. The English dialogue has been edited and timed to perfection but it is a positive nightmare on the eyes to digest several lines of rather formal English prose in one go. I wonder whether the company might consider using a slightly more abridged text for its surtitles in future productions so that there is more time for non-Mandarin speakers to appreciate the acting.

All in all, Tartuffe makes for an entertaining evening out and one must applaud Chia and his team at Nine Years Theatre for their dedication and commitment in exploring these eclectic and challenging foreign plays. Still, one hopes that the company also enjoys themselves when presenting a play instead of merely switching the language and going through the motions. Plays such as this really only work well if they are performed with a certain cheeky abandon and there's little that would recommend them to an audience if that crucial ingredient is missing.

The Crystalwords score: 2.5/5

*This review was written for The Flying Inkpot. See original post here.

30 January 2015

Circle Mirror Transformation

by Annie Baker
PANGDEMONIUM!
DBS Arts Centre, Singapore

Anyone who’s ever taken an acting class or done some drama may remember the kooky exercises one gets up to. Sitting in circles muttering catchphrases, contorting one’s body into funny shapes and engaging in bizarre role-play - it may all feel terribly silly but can be great fun.

PANGDEMONIUM! kicks off this year’s season with American playwright Annie Baker’s hit comedy Circle Mirror Transformation, a play that takes us through six weeks at a creative acting class for adults at a community centre in Vermont.

Friendly, middle-aged administrator James (Daniel Jenkins), shy, recently divorced carpenter Schultz (Adrian Pang), ebullient, recently relocated actress Theresa (Nikki Muller) and sullen high-school kid Lauren (Selma Alkaff) - four people with very little in common - find themselves thrown together in a room presided over by cheerful, new-age hippie Marty (Neo Swee Lin).
      

There are strong performances all around, from Neo’s endearing earnestness to Muller’s larger-than-life antics to Pang’s hilarious bouts of passive aggression. Kudos also to newcomer Alkaff, who conveys moments of extraordinary insight in her turn as a sarcastic, bored teenager and makes a commendable professional stage debut.

Tracie Pang’s layered and sensitive direction drives the production and she allows the interactions of the characters to reveal snippets of their real lives, something that is explored from the get-go in a fun, wordless prologue featuring the characters filing into the classroom for the very first time. It becomes apparent that each of them is there because they are searching for something in life - be it attention, excitement or distraction - and the class becomes the therapy they so desperately need.

Baker uses the acting games to slowly peel away the layers behind each of her characters, who reveal more about themselves than they realize as painful pasts and ugly secrets are stirred up. It’s easy to forget how much acting is based on real life and the play continually blurs the lines between the real and imagined worlds, culminating in a beautiful, bittersweet final scene that cuts close to the bone.


While the luridly entertaining drama exercises are a delight to watch, it’s hard to sustain the conceit of the all-too-revealing acting class for an entire two-hour play performed without an intermission. The script invariably begins to outstay its welcome and all the onstage exuberance cannot mask a gradual dip in energy, a fact that is not helped by Baker’s almost gratuitous use of silences, pregnant pauses and excessive blackouts.

One is also left feeling somewhat confused by the setting. There’s very little in the play to suggest that this is suburban New England and the uneven accent work by the cast does little to anchor a sense of place.

Acting may be all about fun and games but as Circle Mirror Transformation incisively reminds us, through the process of pretending to be someone else, you inevitably learn more about yourself.

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5

*This review was written for TODAY and published on 2 February 2015.

24 January 2015

Under Pressure - Temporary Title

Groupe ACM
M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2015: Art & Loss
(organised and curated by TNS)
Esplanade Theatre Studio, Singapore

How's this for an interesting premise for a play? Two directors (Emilie Vandemeele and Hélène Françoisface) sit at a table facing the audience and address us as if we are a group of actors whom they are about to direct. They introduce the play we are rehearsing for, take us through a series of voice exercises, complain about various troubles facing the production and gradually grow more and more agitated as things spiral out of control.

Under Pressure - Temporary Title was developed by French collective Groupe ACM while they were in the midst of rehearsing for a demanding production called Caisimir and Caroline featuring nine actors with barely any time on their hands. Emilie and Hélène were asked to come up with a short play for a festival and, after bashing the heads together, they thought it would be brilliant to express their pressures by putting up a piece that is precisely about two directors dealing with the nightmare of staging a production where everything seems to go wrong.


This is a play that is as meta-theatrical as they come and we are treated to a prologue involving a video clip of the opening sequence of Caisimir and Caroline. This actual successful production is then sharply contrasted with the fictitious production they are trying to stage. In doing so, we are given a thrilling exposé into the drama that goes on behind the stage even before the curtains have risen for the first time: actors quitting, seeking sponsorship, dealing with accounts and coordinating rehearsal schedules. As an audience member, it's something we never get the chance to see and it's refreshing to see the inner workings of a theatre production being laid bare with no holds barred.

Most of this punchy forty-five minute production plays out like a monologue where Emilie and Hélène take turns speaking to us, sometimes overlapping each other, sometimes having a massive argument amongst themselves when there is a difference of opinion. There is a delicious balletic rhythm to their exchanges and the infectious energy and disarming charm of the duo draws one in. In a hilarious scene, the directors decide to deal with their financial woes by doing some baking. They lazily crack some eggs on a piece of paper, scatter it with flour and chuck the mixture into a microwave oven. Almost instantly, they open the door to reveal a neat little loaf cake which they proceed to slice up and sell to the audience as a means of raising funds for the production. It's a French cake and therefore very good, they insist.

The closing sequence sees the directors gradually descending into mania. One starts stripping off her clothes in a frenzy; the other crawls on the table, smearing her face with what appears to be blood. Music blares as they stagger around in their own warped, wacky worlds. As they later reveal in the post-show dialogue, this very much represents what they sometimes feel "on the inside" in their position as directors. And indeed, we cannot help but empathise even as we wipe away our tears of mirth.

The Crystalwords score: 3/5

23 January 2015

White Rabbit Red Rabbit

by Nassim Soleimanpour
M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2015: Art & Loss
(organised and curated by TNS)
Esplanade Recital Studio, Singapore

There's no director. No set. An actor is handed a sealed envelope containing a script and begins to read it for the first time. Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour's White Rabbit Red Rabbit is an odd yet strangely compelling piece of theatre, where simple whimsicality rubs shoulders with a more sombre meditation on art and censorship.

This second staging of the play in Singapore in connection with the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2015 features four performances with a different actor on each night (Lim Kay Siu, Pam Oei, Benjamin Kheng and Karen Tan). None of the actors know what to expect and part of the mystery is that neither does the audience. On the night I catch this, charismatic local actor-musician Benjamin Kheng rises confidently to the task and proves adept at carrying the hour-long performance.


Things start on a playful note. An audience member is invited onstage to enact the tale of a white rabbit who tries to cover its large, unsightly ears when buying tickets to a performance. At one point, the actor intervenes with a stylised ostrich impersonation (this is one of the few things the actor has been told to prepare beforehand). There is plenty of laughter and part of the oddball charm of the play is that everything that transpires is utterly dependent on the particular actor controlling what takes place on stage and the reactions he elicits from his audience.

The animal theme takes on a darker undercurrent when we are told about an experiment involving five white rabbits in a cage containing a piece of carrot placed atop a ladder. Whenever a rabbit reaches for the carrot, that rabbit is dyed red while the others are drenched with cold water. The other rabbits then turn on the red rabbit. As the red rabbits are eventually replaced with new white rabbits, it is observed that each red rabbit in turn is attacked by his peers, even when the carrot and the cold water are taken out of the equation.

Throughout the performance, we are acutely made aware of the playwright. Like a silent, powerful hand rising up through the script, Soleimanpour asks after the actor speaking his words aloud, wonders what the audience watching him during that performance is like and tells us a little bit about himself. We learn that he is a 29-year-old Iranian who is not allowed to leave his country on account of his refusal to carry out mandatory military service. The play, in effect, is the passport he does not have, his way of meeting people and travelling to places he would otherwise never have been able to.

Finally, as things wrap up, Soleimanpour tells us that one of the two glasses of water on stage is poisoned. The actor must make a decision as to whether he wants to drink from one of the glasses. After that, he must lie down on the floor while the audience files out, unaware of how things will turn out. Kheng raises a glass to his lips only to have it snatched out of his hands by a woman who suddenly walks up on the stage and empties both glasses on the floor. I guess he is going to be fine.

One cannot deny that White Rabbit Red Rabbit is a unique and engaging theatrical experience. It reminds us, with cheeky charm, how theatre is a tool to connect people and places - a thread that links playwright, actor and audience despite geographical or linguistic boundaries. True to the theme of this year's Fringe Festival, it also underscores a particular type of art and loss: the loss of a playwright who can never see the play he has created being performed live. However, the actual content is perhaps not as groundbreaking as one would have hoped. There are disparate strands about acceptance, censorship and humanity that linger in Soleimanpour's words and one feels that these are never neatly wrapped up. Ultimately, the best way to enjoy this play is to sit back and let the magic of live theatre unfold before one's eyes. There's nothing quite like the thrill of the unexpected.

The Crystalwords score: 3/5

08 January 2015

Crystalwords Theatre Highlights 2014

Greetings and Happy New Year! It's taken me a bit of a while to compile this year's annual theatre round-up - I usually aim to get this done in the last week of December but what with moving house and the usual holiday madness, it had to be pushed back slightly.

Looking back over the past twelve months, it's been a fairly eventful year for Singapore theatre - lots more new scripts, plenty of revivals of acclaimed past productions and some interesting showstoppers. I would say it's been a good year overall but not a great one - some very memorable productions have graced our stage but there's still room for improvement.

The usual preliminaries:

(a) This list is written in a purely personal capacity and reflects all the theatre productions I have watched for the year. For the first time this year, I have restricted this list purely to productions in Singapore (whether by local companies or touring foreign companies) to provide as accurate a snapshot of the Singapore theatre scene as I can. Revivals by the same theatre company have not been included unless I did not watch the original production.

(b) I rate all my productions, basing my score on acting, directing, script, production values and the overall experience. My average production score for 2014 is 3.3/5 which is slightly below last year's average of 3.4/5 and 2012's average of 3.5/5. Not bad by any stretch but it could have been slightly better.

(c) As in previous years, I've refrained from the standard 'top ten' lists and done my theatre round-up in Academy Awards style.

*****

Best Actor - Ramesh Panicker, The Merchant of Venice
This year's Shakespeare in Park offering marks the return to stage of Ramesh Panicker after a break of five years and he does a terrific job as moneylender Shylock in a clever artistic move that nods towards the Indian chettiars of Singapore’s colonial past. Panicker turns in a performance that is calm, cutting and poignant and there is tremendous eloquence in his delivery that gives the character gravitas. His strong stage presence and richly cadenced verse is a delight to hear.

Best Actress - Mina Kaye, The Rise and Fall of Little Voice
PANGDEMONIUM!’s second production this year was all about a shy young girl who is revealed to be a singing sensation and this production truly proves to be a star vehicle for Mina Kaye in the title role. Kaye conveys the jittery diffidence of the almost mute Little Voice with tremendous heart and stuns the crowd with her vocal prowess when she morphs into a diva tossing back song upon song with panache. This is a stirring, soulful and robustly empathetic performance and one cannot wait to see more of her on the stage.

Best Supporting Actor - Perry Snowdon, The Merchant of Venice
This is probably the hardest category for me to decide this year and ultimately it was the breezy, debonair eloquence of Perry Snowdon as Bassanio in Merchant that lingered in my mind long after the production ended. He proves the perfect counterpoint to Julie Wee’s Portia and brings both foppish charm to his romantic endeavours and genuine anguish when faced with the predicament befalling his beloved friend Antonio.

Best Supporting Actress - Neo Swee Lin, The Way We Go
This wonderful performance by Neo Swee Lin in Joel Tan’s new play reminds one how skilled she is an actress; she truly inhabits the character of middle-aged convent school teacher Violet with all her heart and one can sense in her the apprehension of a woman getting married well past her prime and someone genuinely wants the best for her ailing friend. Neo’s scenes with Lydia Look’s Agatha are the beating heart of this play about the complex ties of love and companionship that animate us at different stages of life.

Best Script - Dick Lee, Rising Son
Best known for his catchy, popular musicals, singer-songwriter Dick Lee makes a very decent return to the world of serious theatre in this historical drama, the first part of a family trilogy that is to be staged by the SRT over the course of the next three years. Eschewing overt violence and wartime grimness, Rising Son skillfully explores the unusual friendship that developed during the Japanese Occupation in Singapore between Lee’s father Sunny, the latter's younger sister Ruby and a Japanese army lawyer who lives next door to the siblings. While the narrative occasionally feels a little tame, it is refreshing to be offered an alternative narrative of the war as a time for the quiet blossoming of human relationships amidst all the adversity.

Best Set Design - Wong Chee Wai, The House of Bernarda Alba / Red
Wong Chee Wai has done great work in set design this year and his work in these two very different productions deserves to be commended. In W!ld Rice’s unique take on The House of Bernarda Alba, he frames the stage with the shuttered windows of a traditional Peranakan house and an immense front door, giving us a constant reminder of the cloistered, oppressive setting and bringing a visual splendor that is echoed in the other production elements. In Blank Space Theatre’s Red, a play about Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko, he plays with light to create a perfect reproduction of an airy, high-ceilinged New York studio loft, complete with paint-splattered wooden floor and painting paraphernalia scattered around.

Best Costume Design - Ivan Heng, The House of Bernarda Alba
Ivan Heng reveals his fantastic attention to detail as costume designer in this lush, visually stunning Peranakan take on Federico Garcia Lorca’s classic play. He dresses his all-female cast in a chic assortment of kebayas and accessories (all the way down to handmade beaded slippers sourced from Penang), emphasizing the subtle differences between the characters through different styles, shades and textures and creating a powerful visual palette to counterpoint the high drama.

Best Ensemble - Poor Thing, The Necessary Stage
This thoroughly gripping and unique production by The Necessary Stage that bitterly embraces the world of social media and explores the irrational rage that Singaporeans seem to have when dealing with each other is bolstered by riveting performances by the ensemble comprising Siti Khalijah, Joshua Lim, Dwayne Lau and Sharda Harrison. The four actors revel in their respective roles and bandy about race, class, sexuality and religion like cruel weapons, giving rise to a raw, visceral onslaught of emotions.

Best Director - Robert Wilson, Peter Pan
One of the highlights of this year’s Singapore International Festival of Arts was Robert Wilson’s dark, dreamy and thoroughly whimsical take on Peter Pan performed by the Berliner Ensemble. It manages to be both creepy and cheerful (a catchphrase is “to die would be an awfully great adventure”), cheekily unmasks the conventions of the theatre and wraps everything up with the hauntingly beautiful music of freak folk duo CocoRosie. Rarely have I watched a performance where everything comes together so well to transport audiences on an unforgettable journey alongside the boy who never grew up.

Best Overall Production - Mies Julie, Singapore Repertory Theatre
Yael Farber’s explosive production is by no means an easy play to sit through. This acclaimed take on Strindberg’s Miss Julie probes whether society has really changed in contemporary South Africa, even after the demise of its strict policy of racial segregation. The production revels in its sheer physicality and the two lead actors are mesmerising: Hilda Cronje’s animal passion as Julie is matched by Bongile Mantsa’s silent, masculine intensity as family servant John. The disquieting live music, stark set and dusky lighting work well to create a sense of simmering unease that lingers throughout the play. This is a sizzling, savage production that breathes fresh life into a well-worn classic.