04 October 2014

Turn by Turn We Turn

by Chong Tze Chien
The Finger Players
Drama Centre Black Box, Singapore

As part of a mini-series in conjunction with its 15th anniversary, The Finger Players is bringing back two of its greatest hits of recent years: Turn by Turn We Turn (2011) and Roots (2012). Crowned Production of the Year at the Life! Theatre Awards, Turn is a biographical epic based on the life of a fictitious Chinese puppet troupe and its master, Bo Yuan, over the course of the tumultuous twentieth century.

While Turn appears to be essentially a history lesson in the key political events of China’s history - taking world wars, cultural revolutions and the rise of communism in its stride - what comes across more strongly is the idea of heritage, of preserving an art form over the years and not letting it die out. In many ways, the play itself is the strongest testament to this. It is both a nod to the beginnings of The Finger Players as a puppetry troupe and a way of passing on these skills to a whole new generation of performers (particularly the young Finger Players Associate Actors in the cast) who would hopefully be able to carry on this ancient tradition.

Veteran actor Ong Kian Sin certainly holds his own as Bo Yuan and displays great skill in handling the puppets and extracting wonderfully expressive actions from them. While there may be a slight gulf between the dexterity of the more experienced actors such as Goh Guat Kian and Ang Hui Bin and the newer members of the team, the commitment and enthusiasm of the ensemble is evident and they are a pleasure to watch.

Playwright and director Chong Tze Chien shies away from overt sentimentality in his direction and the play is instead bolstered by quiet human fragments that appear throughout the tale: the supportive wife, the steadfast members of the troupe and through it all, the man who simply wants to keep the world of his puppets alive, who never ceases to advocate the transformative power of the theatre to educate, enlighten and entertain audiences through both good times and bad.

Linking the narrative is an amusing, condensed version of the tale of the Monkey King, a perfect means of showcasing the skills of the puppeteers and giving us an indication of the range and variety encapsulated in a traditional Chinese puppet performance. There are some truly beautiful touches here and kudos to the ensemble for delivering a performance that effortlessly blends humour, action and grace.

The lighting and sound designs by Lim Woan Wen and Darren Ng respectively round off this quiet gem of a production, transforming the Drama Centre Black Box into a sloping, tiered capsule that is both epic and intimate, an ode to this rich, dynamic world that is so full of colour and character.

Legacy of the arts is a vital issue that is of continued relevance to us and one must applaud Chong and his team for their earnest endorsement of the value of age-old arts and crafts. One can only hope to see more traditional art forms being preserved and showcased in such a memorable form.

The Crystalwords score: 4/5

*An edited version of this review appears on The Flying Inkpot. See here.

29 August 2014

Mies Julie

based on Miss Julie by August Strindberg
adapted by Yaël Farber
Singapore Repertory Theatre and Baxter Theatre Centre
DBS Arts Centre, Singapore

The troubled heart of South Africa is laid bare in this visceral and vivid contemporary adaptation of Strindberg's 1888 play Miss Julie written and directed by the internationally acclaimed Yael Farber (and presented in Singapore by the Singapore Repertory Theatre).

It's Freedom Day in a remote farmhouse in the Karoo, twenty years since the end of apartheid. Julie (Hilda Cronje), the young white daughter of a landowner, paces restlessly in her kitchen whilst a young black servant, John (Bongile Mantsai), polishes her father's boots. Julie is drawn to the festivity outside amongst the black workers and urges John to celebrate with her at a barn dance. Over the course of one tumultuous evening, the jagged history between the two characters is unearthed and they are pulled towards each other, only to be irretrievably locked in a physical, social and emotional mire that has devastating consequences.

While Strindberg's play shocked its late nineteenth century audience by suggesting a relationship across socio-economic classes, Farber pushes a much tougher agenda by framing the debate in the context of race. Has society really changed in South Africa, even after the demise of its strict policy of racial segregation? How much are people defined by the political and social narratives of the past?

Farber's production revels in its sheer physicality. Julie sprawls on the kitchen table with her legs in the air like a wild cat. John moves with a silent, masculine intensity that is indicative of danger; one feels a sense of foreboding as he jumps off the table with a thunderous bang. No attempt is made to mask the sexual tension between the characters that gradually reaches boiling point. The moment of physical release, when it does arrive, is an explosion of emotions – alternately tender, violent and bitter.

Cronje is a mesmerizing presence as Julie. She starts off somewhat cold and arrogant as she broods in the kitchen, mocking John as he assiduously shines her father's boots. Slowly, we watch her physical and emotional defences being chipped away till she succumbs to her desires, exposing her sheer vulnerability. Cronje powerfully marries animal passion with bitter, self-righteous indignation, highlighting the complexities of trying to navigate a relationship in a world without the confines and structures of the past.

Mantsai takes a while to warm up to his role as the outsider who begins to realize that the world may well be within his grasp. Denied of being treated as an equal for years, he is unable to fathom the idea of a white girl toying with his emotions and when he finally has his way with her, it is with the air of a man finally staking his claim on a long-desired object and making his presence undeniably felt.

The character of Christine, a cook and John's fiancée in the original Strindberg play, is here reinvented as John's mother (Zoleka Helesi), a hardy woman who plods on with her dreary life of cleaning and scrubbing for white masters. In a heart-wrenching scene, she recounts how she had tried to vote, only to discover that she had no fingerprints; a lifetime of cleaning had, quite literally, eradicated her identity. It's a chilling reminder of the countless hordes of people whose lives quietly go by without ever questioning the status quo.

Even at ninety minutes and without an interval, there is some drag in the narrative and the play could benefit from some editing to do away with tedious exposition that plagues the latter half. The uninhibited, brutish intensity of the scenes can also make for uncomfortable viewing. Yet, it is a testament to Farber that the direction and pacing remains tight. Scenes segue neatly into each other and the addition of dreamlike sequences featuring an older black woman (Tandiwe "Nofirst" Lungisa) chillingly evokes the ancestral world that retains its anchor on the present.

Farber's production is bolstered by a compelling aural and visual landscape. The music, composed by brothers Daniel and Matthew Pencer and presented live on stage, contributes to an aching disquiet that leaves us on the edge of our seats till the shocking resolution. Patrick Curtis's stark, utilitarian set and dusky lighting also work well to create a sense of simmering unease that lingers throughout the play.

This sizzling, savage production breathes fresh life into a well-worn classic and forces us to examine its themes with a completely different lens. By rooting itself in history and politics, one is left acutely aware of the thorny issues that emerge when a country deals with the predicament of its past.

The Crystalwords score: 4/5

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

16 August 2014

Facing Goya

by Michael Nyman
libretto by Victoria Hardie
Spoleto Festival USA
Singapore International Festival of Arts 2014
Victoria Theatre, Singapore

This much-vaunted opening production of the revamped Singapore International Festival of Arts 2014, premiering at the beautifully refurbished Victoria Theatre, appears to deliver much but unfortunately makes for a tedious and rather disconcerting evening.

Composed by the celebrated Michael Nyman, featuring a libretto by Victoria Hardie and directed by local thespian Ong Keng Sen, Facing Goya is a pop-jazz opera sung in English that deals with themes of cloning, art and the ethics of science. We start off with an Art Banker (a regal, statuesque Suzanna Guzman) who professes her love for the iconoclastic and visionary Spanish painter Francisco Goya. It was rumoured that Goya had asked for his head to be removed from his body prior to burial to avoid people getting their hands on his brain, his very creative core. Consumed by a desire to bring this remarkable individual back to life, we follow the Art Banker on a surreal trip through time.

She first visits nineteenth century craniometrists, men who measure the dimensions of skulls to determine how the size and shape associated with some races make them more superior than others. Next, we encounter art historians of the twentieth century, a group of critics fuelling Hitler's agenda of propagating a pure Aryan race and culling anything that did not meet the mark ("the negro is closer to the monkey", it is loudly proclaimed). Finally, we run into the biotechnologists of today who expound on the possibilities of playing with DNA and crafting a new genetically superior breed of the human species. Can the creative gene of Goya be cloned to create another artistic genius? Can scientific progress translate into material gain? The ensemble of four actors march around with giant sequined skulls perched on their heads, highlighting a world where science can so easily be commoditised.

The potent issue of racism and chauvinism is driven home by deliberately having the four actors being of different races and genders: two are white, two are men. When a resurrected Goya finally emerges at the end, he is revealed to have a mind of his own and decides to pursue his own endeavours, leaving the Art Banker heartbroken.

All this gives us a lot of food for thought but the production is let down by its wordy and heavy-handed libretto. Hardie has created what is essentially a science lecture that is masquerading as opera. The four actors neatly fall into two camps: two of them pro-ruthless scientific discrimination and the other two against this. Arguments about genetic modification and other scientific theories are bandied about with casual abandon. By the time we get to the third iteration of this debate, a lot of the momentum has been lost and there is little that sustains the narrative thread.

More fundamentally, one struggles to understand why Goya in particular is singled out as the apotheosis of creative genius. Surely any number of artists could have been the subject of this debate? Indeed, it would have helped if the paintings of Goya has been projected on the screen at seminal moments, giving us a greater emotional and visual link with the man.

On the technical side, there is very good use of lighting and projection. I particularly appreciated the aerial cameras which capture the performers from different angles and project these before the audience. Admittedly, the dizzying projections do tend to grow tedious after some time but they capture the idea of individuals being commoditised and give an haunting, modern gloss to the action on stage. There is also a shimmering symmetry in Ong's direction that makes for a powerful visual aesthetic.

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra does a good job in bringing Nyman's soulful and jazzy score to life and giving a jaunty flavour to the production. Yet, the sensitive music and arresting technical flourishes cannot save what ultimately feels like a heavy-handed attempt to blur the boundaries between science and art. One always appreciates a fusion of styles but sometimes, too much colour fades into pure white noise.

The Crystalwords score: 2.5/5

*An edited version of this review appears on The Flying Inkpot. See here.

19 July 2014


by Ramesh Meyyappan
The Studios 2014
Esplanade Theatre Studio, Singapore

It's impossible to watch a Ramesh Meyyappan production and not be filled with a sense of awe. The deaf, Glasgow-based Singaporean artiste’s physical theatre productions are marked by their simplicity and profound visual narrative: a reminder that one can effectively capture an entire spectrum of human emotions without ever needing to rely on dialogue. In Butterfly, Meyyappan presents us with a stunning adaptation of the well-known tale of Madame Butterfly that is by turns breathtaking and barbarous.

This taut, sixty-minute performance makes use of the most basic of props but manages to be larger than itself precisely due to the beauty and grace in which it is executed. Butterfly (Ashley Smith) is a fun-loving kite-maker who meets a travelling lepidopterologist, Nabokov (Meyyappan), and embarks on a brief and passionate relationship with him. Things are brought to a horrible halt when Nabokov catches sight of her being sexually assaulted by a jealous customer (Martin McCormick) and misinterprets the situation. He walks out in a blind rage, leaving Butterfly alone, miserable and pregnant.

Central to the production is the motif of the butterfly, that graceful and delicate creature whose life can be so easily be snatched away. In an arresting sequence, Nabokov goes through the motions of preserving a butterfly he has just caught by dipping it in liquid, forcing it down and carefully piercing its wings and thorax onto a stand. When Butterfly is assaulted by the customer and finally capitulates to him, her actions mimic those of the butterfly, a creature whose joyous flutter has been irrevocably stilled.

Indeed, there is a bitter irony in the idea that Butterfly, a kite-maker who creates beautiful objects to be let loose into the sky, is drawn towards Nabokov, whose passion sees him hunting down wild butterflies and immortalising them in jars. The butterfly which Nabokov preserves and hands to Butterfly early in the play is an apt symbol of how Butterfly herself is, in some ways, a living insect, framed and boxed in by her dependence on him.  One is reminded of the destructive power of love and how women in particular are consumed, both physically and emotionally, by their love for men. Smith, in a remarkable physical theatre debut, conveys the pain and isolation of  a woman whose life has been turned upside down with tremendous empathy.

Butterfly marks Meyyappan’s first foray into puppetry and there is excellent work by Meyyappan and McCormick in manipulating the puppets as they bring Butterfly’s child to life, conveying the playfulness and delight of an infant romping around. The puppets also feature in dream sequences where a sleeping Butterfly dreams of a world where her child and her lover finally reunite. One cannot deny the tremendous degree of skill involved in working with the puppets while never compromising on the emotional arc of the narrative and it is a credit to the entire production team for bringing a true sense of theatrical magic to the performance by introducing something so simple. Kudos also to the lighting and sound designers for creating an evocative aural and visual landscape which complements the action on stage.

If I did have a cavil about this thoughtful and otherwise beautifully executed production, it was in wishing for a more intimate acting space where the audience could truly be up close to the performers and part of their world. It can be difficult to appreciate the puppet work from a distance and if the scores of craning necks in the packed Esplanade Theatre Studio were any indication, almost everyone wanted to catch every last physical flourish.

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5

*An edited version of this review appears on The Flying Inkpot. See here.

13 July 2014


by John Logan
Blank Space Theatre
The Studios 2014
Esplanade Theatre Studio, Singapore

This latest offering by Blank Space Theatre is a biographical drama about Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko. Set in 1958 and 1959, it delves into the life of this intensely private but volatile man who spends his days holed up in a studio, creating immense pieces of art for a prestigious restaurant commission. As one looks closer at these rectangular blocks of colour, one discovers that the worlds of history, philosophy, music, mythology and spirituality are inextricably etched into its luxuriant surface.

John Logan’s Tony Award-winning play is superbly revived in this gripping black–box production by Samantha Scott-Blackhall, whose last production at the Studios in 2012’s Freud’s Last Session garnered rave reviews and multiple Life! Theatre Award nominations. The unlikely pairing of the real-life character of Rothko (Daniel Jenkins) and his fictitious, mild-mannered assistant Ken (Gavin Yap), is a catalyst for great drama and we are drawn into the verbal pyrotechnics that unfold before us as these two men dissect the nature of art while trying to come to terms with their own identities.

So much of a play like this depends on the characters and we are treated here to a truly spectacular performance by Jenkins, one that is both mesmerising and empathetic. Shuffling around on stage with a prosthetic nose and somewhat dubious-looking hairpiece, he speaks in a clipped New York drawl and alternates between intense brooding and equally spine-chilling moments of lucidity as he explains his convictions, theories and fears. For all this arrogance, we sense that Rothko’s ultimate fear is to become redundant, to be but a footnote in the annals of art history in the face of a younger, more experimental wave of newcomers.

Gavin Yap, who has turned in solid performances in Wild Rice’s The Importance of Being Earnest and PANGDEMONIUM!’s Fat Pig, is also no pushover. While his character is largely a sounding board for Rothko’s opinions, he displays tremendous skill in conveying the quiet determination of a young man who wants to matter and make his voice heard. This comes to a head when he finally confronts Rothko and the latter's pretension in agreeing to paint a series of murals for the ritzy Four Seasons restaurant - a place that represents the very temple of consumerism which he despises - leading to an chastened Rothko to remark: “Today, you’ve existed”.

One cannot help but feel that Logan's script occasionally comes across as a thinly concealed art lecture and is deliberately bombastic in its swathe of ideas. This is of course a function of the character it explores and indeed, many of the lines uttered by Rothko in the play are actual quotations taken from his life. Yet, Rothko's numerous monologues can prove a little trying, especially when there is so little provided by way of counterpoint from Ken.

Scott-Blackhall excels in manipulating the full size of the stage and creating rich visual tableaus. In a beautiful scene, Rothko and Ken apply a base coat of red paint to a blank canvas while listening to music, working so perfectly in sync that their brushstrokes almost resemble a dance. The scene transitions - relaxed yet fluid - are also handled well and we are constantly engaged in the trajectories of these two characters throughout the play.

Equal credit goes to the excellent production team. Set designer Wong Chee Wai creates a perfect reproduction of an airy, high-ceilinged New York studio loft, complete with paint-splattered wooden floor and painting paraphernalia scattered around. The life-sized reproductions of Rothko’s work that were specially commissioned for this production are also to be commended; it is difficult to appreciate the context unless one gets a sense of the scale of these works and the intensity of the solid blocks of colour. The stage is also beautifully lit by James Tan, allowing us a glimpse into the sequestered world that the artist creates for himself. Light is depicted as both an ally – adding an element of mystique and romance in its soft shadows – and as an enemy – when Ken turns the lights fully on, the paintings somehow diminish in intensity under the harsh glare.

Red is a play that opens our eyes to the fragile and fractious world of the artist. Like Ken, we too feel compelled to see something in these magnificent works and as the iridescence of the final scene descends upon us, we realize that there is truly an element of magic that lies in these creations.

The Crystalwords score: 4/5

*An edited version of this review appears on The Flying Inkpot. See here