05 April 2014

Rising Son

by Dick Lee
Singapore Repertory Theatre: Stage Two
DBS Arts Centre, Singapore

Hot on the heels of two new local plays by emerging playwrights under SRT’s “Made in Singapore” banner, veteran singer/songwriter and musical theatre personality Dick Lee gives us a heartwarming account of his family history in Rising Son, his first serious play in years. Rising Son is the first part of a family trilogy by Lee that is to be staged by the SRT over the course of three years and is inspired by the unusual friendship that developed during the Japanese Occupation in Singapore in the Second World War between Lee’s father Sunny (Tan Shou Chen), the latter's younger sister Ruby (Seong Hui Xuan) and a Japanese army lawyer, Colonel Hiroyuki Sato (Caleb Goh), living next door to the siblings.

For a wartime story, Lee’s play is surprisingly tame: most of the action plays out in a living room and the atrocities so commonly associated with the Japanese during the war are only hinted at. The only account we have of the horrors outside is a long, somewhat tedious monologue. Instead, what emerges as the central theme is the moral dilemma faced by protagonist Sunny Lee. Should he make friends with a man who, to all intents and purposes, he is conditioned to hate? Does the nationality of an individual make that person repellent, despite how pleasant and kindly he may otherwise be?

Celebrated American director Eric Ting extracts strong performances from the cast of three and succeeds in bringing out the small moments of comedy and tension in Lee's writing. However, the play could have gained by giving us a looming sense of urgency rather than remaining wistful and talky: we never quite feel the threat of war and the risk of the illicit friendship between the siblings and the soldier being exposed. I also found Ting’s decision to have the characters run around the stage to mark the passing of time oddly jarring.

Tan Shou Chen catches the awkwardness of a boy on the cusp of manhood, one who feels himself torn between protecting his family and making a new friend and how this tension slowly gnaws at him as the war goes on. Seong Hui Xuan turns in a mesmerising performance as the teenage Ruby, the innocent yet headstrong girl so desperate to experience the world beyond her cloistered existence that even flirting with a Japanese officer proves a welcome distraction. In a delightful scene where Sato come over to their house for dinner, she coaxes him to dance despite his protestations.

Caleb Goh grounds the play with a nuanced performance as the mild-mannered, cultured Sato. We see in him the conflict between between loyalty to his emperor and the desire to lead his life as a peaceable individual instead of an oppressor. In a pivotal scene where Sunny catches him drinking with Ruby and assumes the worst, he flares up and almost resorts to physical violence even as he blinks away angry tears at being thought of as a lascivious person with evil designs by someone he has come to regard as a friend. There seems to be the merest hint of a Japanese accent in Goh’s delivery and one wonders why he had not tried to make this more obvious; it would have allowed for a stronger aural contrast between the actors.

The set is spartan yet functional and designer Wong Chee Wai creates an atmosphere that is homely with just a few simple props. The notable design element are the rows of books in Sato’s house, suggesting a world of quiet intelligence and order. I was less enthused by the projection work at the start which attempts to set the play in its historical context by flashing headlines of the Japanese military advance but feels rather protracted.

All in all, Rising Son is a tender and compelling piece of writing by Lee and it's certainly refreshing to be offered an alternative narrative of the war as a time for the quiet blossoming of human relationships amidst all the adversity.

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5

16 March 2014

14th Life! Theatre Awards 2014

A slightly belated congratulations to all winners of the 14th Life! Theatre Awards which were announced at an intimate ceremony at The St Regis Singapore on 10 March 2014.

The big winners of the ceremony were Pangdemonium! which took home the top prize of Production of the Year for their rich, emotionally vibrant production of Next to Normal, in addition to Production of the Year (Reader's Choice) for Next to Normal and a Best Actor award for Adrian Pang in family tearjerker Rabbit Hole. Big shout-outs are also in order for Nine Years Theatre which walked away with four awards for Best Supporting Actor, Best Ensemble, Best Set Design and Best Director for gripping courtroom drama Twelve Angry Men and Cake Theatrical Productions, which swept three awards for Best Actress, Best Lighting Design and Best Costume Design for the unsettlingly beautiful Illogic.

Full list of winners and nominees below.

Production of the Year:   Next to Normal (Pangdemonium!)
- 12 Angry Men (Nine Years Theatre)
- For Better Or For Worse (Checkpoint Theatre)
- Illogic (Cake Theatrical Productions)
- Rabbit Hole (Pangdemonium!)

Production of the Year (Reader's Choice):   Next to Normal (Pangdemonium!)
- 12 Angry Men (Nine Years Theatre)
- For Better Or For Worse (Checkpoint Theatre)
- Illogic (Cake Theatrical Productions)
- Rabbit Hole (Pangdemonium!)

Best Director:   Nelson Chia (12 Angry Men, Nine Years Theatre)
- Ivan Heng (Dreamplay: Asian Boys Vol. 1)
- Oliver Chong & Liu Xiaoyi (Citizen Pig)
- Tracie Pang (Next To Normal) 
- Tracie Pang (Rabbit Hole)

Best Original Script:   Alfian Sa'at (Kakak Kau Punya Laki, Teater Ekamatra)
Oliver Chong & Liu Xiaoyi (Citizen Pig)
Faith Ng (For Better Or For Worse)
Natalie Hennedige (Illogic)

Best Actress:   Edith Podesta (Illogic, Cake Theatrical Productions)
- Janice Koh (Rabbit Hole)
- Janice Koh (The Optic Trilogy)
- Jean Ng (For Better Or For Worse)
- Noorlinah Mohamed (Illogic)

Best Actor:   Adrian Pang (Rabbit Hole, Pangdemonium!)
- Adrian Pang (Next To Normal)
- Jeffrey Low (12 Angry Men)
- Najib Soiman (Kakak Kau Punya Laki)
- Tay Kong Hui (12 Angry Men)

Best Supporting Actress:   Serene Chen (8 Women, Sing'theatre)
- Seong Hui Xuan (Rabbit Hole)
- Sharda Harrison (The Crucible)

Best Supporting Actor:   Johnny Ng (12 Angry Men, Nine Years Theatre)
- Eden Ang (Rabbit Hole)
- Nathan Hartono (Next To Normal)

Best Ensemble:   12 Angry Men (Nine Years Theatre)
- Cook A Pot Of Curry (W!ld Rice)
- Dreamplay: Asian Boys Vol. 1 (W!ld Rice)
- Family Duet (spell#7)

Best Set Design:   Wong Chee Wai (12 Angry Men, Nine Years Theatre)
- Ian Bailie (Jack & The Bean-Sprout)
- Neon Tights (Illogic)
- Philip Engleheart (Gruesome Playground Injuries)
- Philip Engleheart (Next To Normal) 

Best Sound Design:   Zai Kuning (Family Duet, spell#7)
- Philip Tan (Illogic) 
- Philip Tan (Serendipity In Decimal Points: First Station) 

Best Lighting Design:   Andy Lim (Illogic, Cake Theatrical Productions)
- James Tan (Next To Normal)  
- Mac Chan (Dreamplay: Asian Boys Vol. 1)  

Best Costume Design:   David Lee (Illogic, Cake Theatrical Productions)
- Anthony Tan (12 Angry Men)
- Frederick Lee (Crazy Christmas Ting Tong Belles)
- Philip Engleheart (Next To Normal) 

15 March 2014

The House of Bernarda Alba

by Federico García Lorca
in an adaptation by Chay Yew
W!ld Rice
Drama Centre Theatre, Singapore

W!ld Rice’s Masterpiece theatre showcase at the start of the year is always something to look forward to. In 2011, Ivan Heng brought the house down with his luminous interpretation of the title role in Emily of Emerald Hill, a spectacular conclusion to the company’s 10th anniversary celebrations. 2012 saw W!ld Rice’s inaugural take on Shakespeare with a solid, effervescent production of Romeo & Juliet. And last year, Glen Goei revived his critically acclaimed all-male production of Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.

The line-up of esteemed actresses for The House of Bernarda Alba, a sombre rural tale from Spanish dramatist Federico García Lorca, was enough to set tongues wagging. Coupled with a stark, stylish aesthetic, this was undoubtedly set to be one of the theatre highlights of the year. Yet, the problem clawing at the heart of this production is a mixture of overwrought emotion and slightly dubious casting.

Central to the play is Bernarda (Claire Wong), the iron-fisted matriarch who declares an eight-year period of mourning in her family when her second husband passes away. Immured in an oppressive household, her five daughters languish in their isolation and hidden tensions and desires reach boiling point when a handsome suitor, Pepe el Romano, enters the scene, ensnaring the hearts of three of the sisters.

Even though Lorca deliberately strips the play of any male presence, it is the withering effects of patriarchy that are most apparent. That a women’s position in the world is defined by men is revealed as a bitter, inescapable truth. The mourning decreed by Bernarda follows in the footsteps of what had been done in her father's and grandfather's house. Her eldest daughter, the plain, 39-year-old Angustias (Neo Swee Lin), is sought after as a bride precisely because she has a fortune left to her by her father, Bernarda’s first husband. Indeed, the very sight of a line of lusty male villagers making their way to the field is enough to send the women’s hormones into overdrive.

Claire Wong grounds the play with a chilling presence that give her scenes both grandeur and gravitas. We see the cracks in her Bernarda, that cold matriarch who mocks her poor relatives and viciously scrubs make-up off her daughter’s face but shows a softer side when trading anecdotes with her trusted servant. While Wong's dramatic outbursts could certainly have been scaled back, her carefully bottled up emotions make her final, bitter breakdown all the more poignant.

Particularly noteworthy amongst the cast are Jo Kukathas, who steals all her scenes as cynical, long-suffering servant Poncia, and Noorlinah Mohamed, the somewhat overlooked daughter Martirio whose romantic feelings for Pepe el Romano are quietly ignored. Comparative newcomer Glory Ngim proves herself to be every bit the equal of her experienced co-stars with her rendering of rebellious youngest daughter Adela who pursues Pepe el Romano with disastrous consequences. While there is little one can fault with the individual performances, the collective effect of all the drama makes for uneasy, often tedious viewing and one wishes that certain scenes had been toned down.

Goei has taken Chay Yew’s slightly streamlined 2000 adaptation of this classic play and clothed it in a lush Peranakan setting. Visual splendour appears to be the watchword of the production: the stunningly choreographed sequence where the female mourners return from the church stands out for its opulence. Goei breathes life into Lorca's lyrical text, both in the midst of fraught dialogue and fractured silences. In an evocative scene, the bookish Amelia (Serene Chen) stands in the courtyard in the middle of a storm, enjoying the clandestine sensation of being drenched by the rain. An awkward tea party to entertain a friend makes for another compelling scene where the simple act of stirring a teaspoon effectively adds to the tension.

The production team works wonders on the stage. Set designer Wong Chee Wai 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. Working almost primarily with a colour palette of black, costume designer Ivan Heng does stunning work, dressing the women in a chic assortment of kebayas and accessories, all the while emphasizing the subtle differences between the characters through different styles, shades and textures. Kudos as well to Lim Yu-Beng who creates an atmosphere of intrigue and passion with his dusky lighting designs.

Yet, all said and done, one wonders what the Peranakan setting really adds to the production apart from a classy aesthetic. All the characters retain their original Spanish names and if we are meant to be in colonial-era Singapore, this is certainly not apparent.  Perhaps adding in the odd Malay or dialect phrase would have helped to anchor the setting. It makes little sense for two Indian maids to have names like Poncia and Blanca.

Another nagging question on my mind is director Glen Goei’s choice in casting. Neo Swee Lin appears incongruous in a role where she looks almost similar in age to her onstage mother, the versatile Karen Tan is sadly underused as acerbic sister Magdalena and perhaps most unfortunately, the grande dame of Singapore actresses, Margaret Chan, appears in a role that barely does justice to her immense talents. No doubt, Chan makes an impact in her brief appearances as Bernarda’s deranged, wedding-dress-clad mother, Maria Josefa, though surely no one could have done a better Bernarda?

Ultimately, this brooding, intense production of Bernarda Alba ticks all the boxes for a night of dramatic passion but one wishes that the emotions had been more finely calibrated and more thought had been put into the casting. One cannot help but feel rather overwhelmed by the staggering display of histrionics.

The Crystalwords score: 3/5

09 March 2014

A Wedding, A Funeral and Lucky, the Fish & Stand Behind the Yellow Line

by Dora Tan and Michelle Tan
Singapore Repertory Theatre: Stage Two
DBS Arts Centre, Singapore

In a refreshing break from its typically Western-centric programming, the SRT has dedicated the next two months to not one, not two, but three original Singaporean plays under its Stage Two wing. The first two plays under this "Made in Singapore" banner, A Wedding, A Funeral and Lucky, the Fish and Stand Behind the Yellow Line, by emerging playwrights Dora Tan and Michelle Tan respectively, are showcased in a double-bill where cosy realism rubs shoulders with sombre allegory.

Both these hour-long, four-handers are the product of a dedicated playwright incubator programme with esteemed playwright David Henry Hwang as mentor and Jack Bradley as dramaturg. They are finished off with a professional cast and helmed by director Samantha Scott-Blackhall.

The evening kicks off with Dora Tan's A Wedding, A Funeral and Lucky, the Fish (3/5), the tale of émigré air stewardess Seraphina (Amy Cheng) who visits home for the first time in years with British boyfriend Alistair (Daniel Jenkins) in tow. What Alistair does not know is that he is about to attend his own wedding and be privy to a series of revelations that will send ripples through Seraphina's family. Tan has a good grasp of writing for the stage and her dialogue has a richness and authenticity that makes for engaging theatre. There are echoes of Claire Tham and Tan Hwee Hwee here with themes of the dislocated Singaporean and the perennial clash of cultures between locals and foreigners.

Photo credit: SRT
Wedding benefits from a strong cast and there are great dynamics between Jenkins's polite and very English Alistair and Seraphina's zealous mother, a role which veteran actress Catherine Sng inhabits with vigour. Isabella Chiam, as younger sister Xin Ru with her own mysterious life, also proves a revelation and one can’t help but feel that this is a character whose story demands to be explored further.

Yet Dora Tan's script, by trying to reach for comedy, drama and farce, ends up stretching its emotions far too thinly. After an intriguing exposition, the second half of the play pits one revelation against the next in a manner that strains credulity. Some of the exchanges between the characters also ring false and the writing could have benefited from more subtlety. The play could easily have ended at the point when the miserable, desperate Alistair agrees to go ahead with the Chinese tea ceremony but Tan tacks on a superfluous final scene where it is revealed that the mother knew about the father's death all along but had decided not to do anything about it.

Scott-Blackhall invests this tight family drama with the requisite dramatic pace and is alive to its moments of tension and comedy. Despite all the plot twists and turns, it’s impossible not to be entertained. On the production front, Wong Chee Wai's set effectively conjures up the minute, cluttered world of Chinese domesticity - all red banners, joss sticks and festive foodstuffs.

By contrast, Michelle Tan's Stand Behind the Yellow Line (2.5/5) is an entirely different beast. Here we leave the world of sunny realism behind and are confronted with a nameless, surveillance state where the mantra is “rules are rules are rules” and everybody’s actions are watched over by a cryptic, omnipresent Mayorman (R Chandran).

The narrative focuses on a homeless woman, Bags (Zelda Tatiana Ng), who awaits the release from prison of her son, Slip (Isaac Ong) - where he has been sent due to vandalism of public property – and the odd friendship she strikes up with a young, depressed girl (Jean Toh) who decides to help her.

Photo credit: SRT
One cannot deny the powerful symbolism that Tan weaves into the script: the blackly humorous political double-speak, parodies of MRT announcements on suspicious objects (even if they are harmless doughnuts), the constant reminder of people being reined in by boxing them up in areas marked by yellow tape. Yet, for all the clever allegory, the plot falls short of amounting to something truly gripping. I was reminded of Pursuant, the Singapore Lyric Opera’s tedious musical-opera last year which posited a dystopian Singapore of the future where dreaming was banned and the exploits of one young man who decides to stand up and buck the trend.

It seems almost ludicrously neat when it is revealed that the Mayorman had had a relationship with Bags in the past and Slip is his own child. Yet, all said and done, the state proves more powerful than the individual and the haunting vision we have at the end is that of Slip being a mere crony, methodically painting those same yellow lines that had boxed him and his mother in all their lives.

Unlike Wedding, the comparatively young and less experienced cast in Yellow Line do not have the depth to bring out the script and Scott-Blackhall seems unable to find a way to drive the action forward. The scene changes are clunky and even at sixty minutes, the plot rapidly grows dull. Tan definitely deserves kudos for trying her hand at a challenging political piece that tackles issues of conformity and individualism but her scattered, somewhat disjunctive style lacks finesse. Despite having been developed for over a year, one senses that this is a play that is not quite finished yet.

The design element Wong employs in Yellow Line is simple but effective: a wall of variously-sized television screens which repeatedly broadcast the Mayorman’s propaganda, creating a flickering reminder that nothing escapes his eyes. In a striking scene, the Mayorman (in the television screen) lists out all Slip's violations by throwing out pieces of paper at the screen that eerily cascade to the floor.

All in all, this double-bill makes for a satisfying evening. The SRT has brought together two very different original plays with probing themes and with the aid of a professional team, these have been successfully realized on stage. As far as Singaporean writing goes, Wedding and Yellow Line may not be especially strong pieces but one senses that we have in Dora Tan and Michelle Tan two powerful chroniclers of the Singaporean identity. I’m keen to see what will come next from these two playwrights.

The Crystalwords score: 3/5

02 March 2014

Poor Thing

by Haresh Sharma
The Necessary Stage
Necessary Stage Black Box, Singapore

TNS has always been at the cutting edge of theatrical expression. Back at the turn of the century, it took the local stage by storm with a slew of eclectic, multimedia-saturated works that sought to break away from the conventional linear narrative. With this latest devised production, it has once again emerged a pioneer of a new form of theatre: one which embraces the world of social media and makes bitter love to it.

A day before watching Poor Thing, we are encouraged to “friend” one of the characters, Jerome Koshy, on Facebook. It gives us a certain voyeuristic thrill to be privy to Jerome‘s photographs and status updates and we immediately get a glimpse into this camp, earthy character. Shortly before entering the theatre, we are shown a video clip of two pairs of characters driving along a quiet road at night – Jerome and his best friend in one car and a young married couple in another. One car suddenly brakes upon seeing a stop sign and the other car rams into it.

Photo: Caleb Ming / SURROUND
As we enter the theatre, we are thrust, quite literally into the middle of the action. Set designer Vincent Lim has impressively put together two partially stripped-down cars and the action proceeds seamlessly from the point of the crash. Over the course of the sixty-minute play, Jerome posts real-time updates, photos and even a video of the events unfolding before our eyes. As an audience member, it’s both thrilling and confusing. On the one hand, we can read and comment on Jerome’s posts, allowing us to play a role in the narrative. However, on the other, our reactions are indubitably coloured by the context in which everything is happening in front of us. Through this simple device, the production team, led by playwright Haresh Sharma and director Alvin Tan, effectively captures the conflicting hold which social media places on us.

Although the car accident is the catalyst of the play, it is the simmering tensions between the characters that drive the action as the play progresses. We have Alisha (Sharda Harrison), a rich, fairly drunk Indian woman with an uppity English accent, Jevon (Joshua Lim), her level-headed Chinese husband, Sharifah (Siti Khalijah Zainal), a working-class Malay girl dealing with relationship woes and finally, Jerome (Dwayne Lau), her garrulous, unemployed gay best friend on his way to army reservist training.

Sharma’s writing is as sharp as ever and he gives us shades of the lives of each of these characters while weaving in wry anecdotes about Singaporeans that strike a chord. In one scene, Alisha compliments Jerome on his good English because, according to her, most Singaporeans can barely string together a coherent sentence. It’s a perfectly valid observation from someone who’s spent some time abroad but, hearing it said aloud, one immediately realizes how condescending it may sound.

The play is not without its flaws. There are a number of repetitive tropes in the dialogue and several scenes have obviously been milked for dramatic effect. Would someone like Jerome be quite so forward with a perfect stranger, especially when wearing his army uniform? Considering how drunk Alisha appears, would she really be able to totter around quite so much? Yet it's hard to fault these minor imperfections: the form of the play here is far more vital than the actual substance.

Poor Thing draws its inspiration from recent events that have sprouted over the media about people shooting their mouths off online and things spiralling out of context. The real theme here is the irrational rage that Singaporeans seem to have when dealing with each other, where we seem to take offence at the slightest provocation. The polite and mild-mannered Jevon, pushed to his limits by Jerome, resorts to unleashing a stream of Hokkien vulgarities into the night leaving his wife watching in horror. “Yes, this is who you married,” he remarks savagely. It’s a scene that chillingly depicts how easily we can shed the civilised clothes we wear and reveal our true ugliness.

Because of the way the play is structured, with the characters making banal conversation at the start, it comes as quite a shock when political correctness is thrown out the door and they go for the jugular. Race, class, sexuality and religion are bandied about like cruel weapons and the result is a raw, visceral onslaught of emotions. There are strong performance by all four members of the ensemble cast. Harrison and Siti in particular do an especially good job at inhabiting their characters and prove equally arresting in the midst of tense confrontation and the fractured pauses in between.

It’s certainly interesting being part of a play that is not limited to the sixty minutes of live action we witness but where the conversation continues both before and after the main event. And it is here that TNS have made their most significant contribution: showing us that theatre is not a static object that is digested in one bite but an ongoing conversation in which all of us are encouraged to participate.

The Crystalwords score: 4/5