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 production 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 short 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.

04 December 2014

Paradise

by Zizi Azah
Teater Ekamatra
Drama Centre Black Box, Singapore

Teater Ekamatra, what were you thinking? Coming from the company that has given us incisive, thought-provoking productions such as Charged, Hantaran Buat Mangsa Lupa and last year’s rip-roaring Kakak Kau Punya Laki, this flimsy science fiction drama penned by Zizi Azah proves a huge disappointment.

Paradise throws us into the world of dystopian city, Kesamet, where a mysterious disaster has left a few individuals trapped and hemmed in by harsh deserts. The only means of survival is by consuming orgone, an energy-inducing substance that is produced bodily in factories. Dan (Crispian Chan), one of the orgone producers, desperately seeks to remember his past while not stepping on the toes of authoritarian matriarch, Sinan (Ang Hui Bin) who keeps everyone in check.


Much of the tension focuses on Dan rebelling against his painfully mundane environment where everyone has a precise role to play to ensure the optimal functioning of society. His only friend Telulah (an exuberant, polka-dotted Eugene Tan in his drag queen persona Becca D'Bus), by contrast, chooses to carry on his tasks without questioning the status quo. Rounding off the cast are Kat (Jean Toh), a factory supervisor and Dan's wife Mag (Maimunah "Munah" Bagharib), an apparent victim of the apocalypse who is revealed to us in flashbacks.

The set-up, of course, begins to smell awfully familiar when Sinan starts going on about increasing the productivity of orgone and building up reserves for a rainy day; if not, "hard truths" must be faced. Here we finally have it – a jab at Singapore's ruthless efficiency where all that glitters may not be gold. The plot may have better captured one's attention if the entire premise had not been so utterly derivative. Barely five minutes into the action, I couldn't help wondering if this was meant to be a localised, industrial-chic version of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Life is meaningless. Let's try to escape. Big Sister is watching you. While there are some clever allusions and witty wordplay, it's a pity that Zizi couldn't find a more original way to articulate her theme.

To add to the dissatisfaction, Paradise is marred by a series of haphazard, unconvincing performances. Ang lacks stage presence and intensity as the cold leader of Kesamet and looks like she is trying very hard not to stumble over her words. Effervescent YouTube personality Munah does a decent enough job as a rambunctious, dog-like pet of Sinan's (who is later revealed to be Mag) though her perennial growling rapidly begins to grate. And it remains unclear to me the exact purpose of Toh's character – she appears to be a callous yes man one moment, a timid, tearful wreck another.


Director Rizman Putra catches the odd moment of comedy in the play and infuses the whole affair with a generous dose of physical theatre. A scene of Dan and Mag doing a quirky robotic dance has the audience in stitches and Telulah's sassy, diva-esque presence lifts his scenes even if there is no further character development. However, one cannot shake off the feeling that this – together with needlessly futuristic touches such as translucent orbs and multiple TV screens flashing images to amplify the plot – is all mere padding over a weak, unfocused script.

This is by no means the first time we’ve seen a play that presents a grim, dystopian version of Singapore – both Jonathan Lim’s Pursuant and Ken Kwek’s Apocalyspe Live! explored variations of this theme to slightly better effect. Instead of a contrived rojak of popular science fiction themes that skirts this way and that without cohering into an organic whole, I was hoping for something with a little more bite. I’d really love to see an authentic science fiction play set in Singapore but I don’t think we’ve gotten there yet.

The Crystalwords score: 2/5

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

22 November 2014

Nagamandala

by Girish Karnad
HuM Theatre
Kalaa Utsavam 2014
Esplanade Theatre Studio, Singapore

Helmed by the irrepressible husband-and-wife team of Daisy Irani and Subin Subaiah, HuM Theatre has delivered a stream of comic, Western-style plays over the past few years that have been given a distinct Indian Singaporean flavour. It is lovely to see them take pride of place in the Esplanade's annual Indian Festival of Arts, Kalaa Utsavam, with this specially commissioned production.

Nagamandala is a combination of two folk stories by playwright Girish Karnad. It tells the tale of sweet young bride, Rani (Sharda Harrison), who is sequestered at home by her brusque, philandering husband, Motabhai (Subin Subaiah). When a blind village auntie, Andhadiba (Daisy Irani), intervenes with some love potion to remedy the situation, it unwittingly gets fed to an amorous, shape-shifting king cobra living in the backyard, leading to a series of dramatic consequences.


In an overarching narrative, a man finds himself cursed by mysterious spirits and forced to listen to a story from beginning to end without falling asleep in order to be set free. The "story" (personified by Irani in a double role) of Motabhai, Rani and the snake is therefore enacted for the man.

The production celebrates the traditional Indian craft of storytelling and is proudly performed in traditional Rajasthani costumes – all sequinned vests and brightly coloured saris. Live musicians underscore the action on stage with the tabla, harmonium and carnatic flute, giving off the air of a village folk show where comedy, tragedy, song and dance merrily collide.

Scene-stealer Irani has the audience eating out of her hand in her turn as the kooky, melodramatic Andhadiba and Subaiah is likewise in fine form as the bald, bullying, moustachioed Motabhai. However, it is Harrison who truly steals the show as Rani. Harrison is perhaps best known for her frequent collaborations with The Necessary Stage in productions such as Crossings, Poor Thing and Gitanjali and her magnetic presence as a physical performer lifts the production, deftly charting the transformation of Rani from miserable young girl to confident, fearless woman.


Wong Chee Wai and Chen Silei's simple, uncluttered set, comprising just a large, gnarled tree (home to the snake) and a single door which represents the house of Motabhai and Rani, allows the acting to take centrestage, with the ensemble cast freely fluttering around to conjure up the scenes. There is also good work by lighting designer Lim Woan Wen, who creates suspense by concealing and revealing characters and uses colour to cleverly alter the mood.

Irani strikes a good balance between seriousness and levity in her direction and allows the production to be propelled by the physical performances while maintaining the dreamy, folk roots of the play. Yet, Nagamandala drags in its second half and one wishes that the pacing had been tightened. While there is generally good support by the ensemble cast, some of their antics feel forced and overly showy.

In just four short years, HuM Theatre has shown a steady commitment to break into different genres of theatre. In 2012, they catapulted their way into farce with an Indianized version of Moliere (The Kanjoos). Last year, they tackled social issues in a forum theatre piece about integration issues facing Indian expatriates (We Are Like This Only!) and, in this production, they have shown themselves capable of deftly performing classical Indian folk drama. I find it a bit of a pity that their productions tend to be frequented largely by members of the Indian community. This sort of work is exactly what makes the Singapore theatre scene so diverse and really deserves to be seen by people of all backgrounds.

The Crystalwords score: 3/5

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