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'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.

25 October 2014

Frozen

by Bryony Lavery
PANGDEMONIUM!
Esplanade Theatre Studio, Singapore

This is no warm, fuzzy crowd-pleaser. Bryony Lavery's Frozen tackles the thorny subject of paedophilia and explores this through the voices of three distinct individuals. We first meet Agnetha (Janice Koh), a psychologist who studies serial killers and seeks to view them in a sympathetic light. Then there is Ralph (Adrian Pang), a seedy, mentally troubled man who abducts and murders little girls. Finally, we encounter Nancy (Karen Tan), the mother of a ten-year-old girl who goes on an errand one day and never returns.

The play is structured as a series of alternating monologues by these three characters. It spans over twenty years and charts their complicated journeys towards emotional and mental acceptance. It’s only towards the end that the characters begin to interact and their individual stories to intertwine.


While the premise is promising, the script feels both haphazard and incomplete. Apart from a few dramatic scenes where the characters lock horns, one cannot shake off the sense of watching a passive series of speeches that do not cohere into an organic whole. The character of Agnetha, in particular, is very poorly sketched. She is largely a mouthpiece for Lavery to propound academic theories about humanizing serial killers, and her individual story arc of dealing with a broken heart and betraying a friend by having an affair with her husband seems downright incongruous.

Tracie Pang handles the subject with characteristic flair, though certain aspects of her direction feel quite heavy-handed. I didn’t see the need to be told exactly what Agnetha was typing on her laptop on a projection screen or to be informed of the date and location of each and every scene. Part of the mystery of the play is its non-linear narrative and the realization on the part of the audience of the inexorable passage of time. We should be made to do some of the legwork and figure out the contours of the plot on our own.

If there is something that truly stands out in this production, it is Adrian Pang’s admirable performance as Ralph. Pang brings tremendous empathy to this coarse, detestable character, allowing us to understand his life of quiet alienation, where solace only comes from sweet young things that happen to wander his way. Pang turns in a gut-wrenching performance that is both powerful and quietly chilling; he never makes himself the centre of attention and allows every gesture and nuance of the character to speak for itself.


In the poignant scene where Nancy finally confronts Ralph in prison, we see the spectre of an utterly broken man who realizes, albeit too late, the depth of his transgressions. We are reminded, as Agnetha says, that the difference between a crime of evil and a crime of illness is the difference between a sin and a symptom, and Pang allows us to peek behind the façade of this man to see that he acts the way he does due to forces beyond his control.

Karen Tan inhabits the role of Nancy with hearty emotion and gives a moving reminder of the difficulty of a parent coming to terms with the death of a child and trying to move on with her life. Yet her performance is let down by her making almost no attempt to ground the character in the English setting of the play.

Janice Koh, likewise, struggles (not for the first time) with her American accent as Agnetha. The fact remains that not every actor can pull off an accent. There are ways to deal with this, such as localising the script or inventing a simple backstory and changing the details of the characters. Even if there had been some attempt to suggest that the characters were of Asian descent, it would have proved far less distracting. In a play that evokes such painful, raw emotions, an obviously Chinese woman who introduces herself as Agnetha Gotmundsdottir and casually mentions that her ancestors hail from a cold, ice-bound place just sounds odd.


Set designer Eucien Chia, whose impressive, symbolic designs have won numerous plaudits, proves disappointing this time round. The set has an unfinished feel to it, with a clear plastic screen hanging upstage that reminds one of a house in the midst of renovation. The scattered photographs that constitute the floor also complicate the visual style. The only genuinely interesting touch is the series of dress-like lamps suspended from the ceiling, a spectral reminder of all the little girls who have fallen prey to Ralph over the years.

PANGEDEMONIUM! has delivered a steady stream of hits over the years, so even if this latest production left me cold, one should not forget that there are precious few theatre companies in Singapore who would even dare to stage this type of play. And judging from the fact that Frozen was entirely sold out even before it opened, PANGEDEMONIUM! has firmly secured its fans throughout the island. Still, one hopes that it can continue to deliver work of a consistently high quality. I can’t help but feel the script choices for 2014 have been a couple of notches below those from last year - and sometimes it really is the most important decision one can make.

The Crystalwords score: 2.5/5

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

18 October 2014

Roots

by Oliver Chong
The Finger Players
Drama Centre Black Box, Singapore

Like the pot of rice steaming merrily in a corner of the stage, Oliver Chong's Roots envelops us with a warm, comforting aroma. This engaging monodrama, restaged as part of The Finger Players’ 15th anniversary celebrations, is written, directed and performed by Chong and was staged to critical acclaim in 2012, snagging awards for Best Script and Production of the Year at last year's Life! Theatre Awards.


Roots explores Chong's personal quest to learn about his ancestors in China. Armed with only the vaguest of clues and cryptic anecdotes from his grandmother, he takes advice from online forums before planning a journey to his ancestral village near Taishan in the province of Guangdong.

Chong has a unique gift for storytelling: he slips into a multitude of roles as he recounts his adventures to find his hometown, morphing effortlessly from an evasive, absent-minded grandmother to a kindly hotel clerk to a host of whispering village elders. Throughout the seventy-minute performance, Chong pads around in a large trough filled with rice grains sketching shapes and patterns, literally drawing and redrawing the lines of his history as he discovers secrets and stories that have remained hidden for years.

Moments of laugh-out-loud hilarity are balanced with quietly affecting scenes. In a particularly touching moment, Chong describes the simple joy of his father when the latter learns of a long-lost cousin in a small village, reminding us of the eternal power of the family to transcend physical boundaries.


The performance is delivered in a fluent mélange of Mandarin and Cantonese with a smattering of English although it is the use of English that I found to be the most jarring, seeming to be thrown in as an afterthought and making the flow of the surtitles less smooth.

Many of Singapore's iconic monodramas such as Stella Kon’s Emily of Emerald Hill, Huzir Sulaiman’s Occupation and Haresh Sharma’s Best Of are ultimately tales about finding oneself which are both deeply personal and wonderfully universal in their reach. Roots is no exception and it's impossible not to be swept along in the sparkling narrative. We all recognize traits of ourselves in Chong: the culturally dislocated modern Singaporean who wants to get a sense of his family history and understand the journey which led him to where he is today.

And the power of Roots is that it reminds us that sometimes it is that journey which makes all the difference, whatever the outcome may be. We all just want to find a place to call home.

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5

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.