20 April 2015

15th Life! Theatre Awards 2015

The 15th M1-The Straits Times Life! Theatre Awards was held this afternoon at the Esplanade Recital Studio in an intimate ceremony hosted by Pam Oei. The dress code for the event was Solid Gold.

Heartiest congratulations to all winners! Translated French comedy 'Art' by Nine Years Theatre and raucous pantomime Monkey Goes West by W!LD RICE walked away with a total of three awards each, including a joint win for Production of the Year. This is the first time in the history of the awards that two productions have shared the top honour.

Full list of winners and nominees below.

Production of the Year: Monkey Goes West (W!LD RICE) and 'Art' (Nine Years Theatre)
- The Rise & Fall Of Little Voice (PANGDEMONIUM!)

Production of the Year (Readers' Choice): Monkey Goes West (W!LD RICE)
- 'Art' (Nine Years Theatre)
- The Rise & Fall Of Little Voice (PANGDEMONIUM!)

Best Director: Nelson Chia ('Art', Nine Years Theatre)
- Edith Podesta (Dark Room x8)
- Sebastian Tan (Monkey Goes West)
- Tracie Pang (Fat Pig)

Best Actor: Peter Sau ('Art', Nine Years Theatre)
- Adrian Pang (Frozen)
- Oliver Chong ('Art')
- Sugie Phua (Monkey Goes West)

Best Actress: Mina Kaye (The Rise & Fall Of Little Voice, PANGDEMONIUM!)
- Frances Lee (Fat Pig)” (Pangdemonium)
- Lydia Look (The Way We Go)

Best Supporting Actor: Remesh Panicker (The Merchant of Venice, Singapore Repertory Theatre)
- Erwin Shah Ismail (The Ant & The Grasshopper)
- Zachary Ibrahim (Fat Pig)

Best Supporting Actress: Jo Kukathas (The House Of Bernarda Alba, W!LD RICE)
- Elizabeth Lazan (Fat Pig) 
- Siti Khalijah Zainal (Monkey Goes West)

Best Ensemble: Dark Room x8 (Edith Podesta)
- Poor Thing (The Necessary Stage)
- Senang (Drama Box)

Best Original ScriptLiu Xiaoyi (Fluid)
- Edith Podesta (Dark Room x8) 
- Haresh Sharma (Poor Thing)
- Oon Shu An (#UnicornMoment)

Best Set Design: Ho Tzu Nyen, Andy Lim and Jed Lim (Ten Thousand Tigers, Ho Tzu Nyen)
- Eucien Chia (The Rise & Fall Of Little Voice)
- Wong Chee Wai (The House Of Bernarda Alba)

Best Sound Design or Original Score: Bani Haykal (Gitanjali, The Necessary Stage)
- Darren Ng ('Art')
- Elaine Chan and Bang Wenfu (Monkey Goes West)
- Jeffrey Yue, Yasuhiro Morinaga and Bani Haykal (Ten Thousand Tigers)

Best Lighting Design: Andy Lim (Ten Thousand Tigers, Ho Tzu Nyen)
- James Tan (Red) 
- Lim Yu-Beng (The House Of Bernarda Alba)

Best Costume Design: Tube Gallery by Phisit & Saxit (Monkey Goes West, W!LD RICE)
- Ivan Heng (The House Of Bernarda Alba)
- Yang Derong (Hotpants)

11 April 2015

Public Enemy

by Henrik Ibsen 
(originally titled An Enemy of the People)
in a new version by David Harrower
Victoria Theatre, Singapore

For its 15th anniversary season (imagiNATION) that coincides with Singapore's 50th year of independence, W!LD RICE will be rolling out five productions exploring, in turn, the tenets of democracy, peace, progress, equality and justice. It kicks things off with a local adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's classic 1882 play (usually translated as An Enemy of the People) that turns the concept of democracy on its head.

In a glittering Singapore poised to be a world-class resort spa, Dr Thomas Chee (Ivan Heng) has written a report that reveals the country's waters to be contaminated due to industrial waste. He is adamant on making his findings public due to the adverse health consequences but is thwarted at every turn, most notably by his elder brother Peter (Lim Kay Siu), a wily politician who wants him to quash the report due to the economic repercussions: the damage will take two years and billions of dollars to rectify. Friends and supporters who initially express an interest in Thomas's views soon denounce him and he is branded a public enemy.

W!LD RICE has opted to stage a 2013 adaptation of Ibsen’s play by David Harrower (best known for his searing drama Blackbird) that is punchy, provocative and pacey. Harrower's dialogue resonates very strongly in the Singaporean context, especially in our current climate of citizen journalism where public emotions can be so easily swayed by a majority.

However, I did not appreciate the occasional lack of subtlety in Harrower’s writing. The seminal scene where Thomas plans to read his report at a public lecture is littered with sweeping statements. "Has anyone here one good thing to say about politicians?", Thomas baldly demands. The silent majority, he adds, is no better than those in power for blindly following the status quo and refusing to entertain alternative views. I did not feel compelled by this simplistic "us versus them" binary that is forced down our throats. Ibsen's original text shows a little more nuance and it's worth considering if the production would have been able to retain its thrust had it stuck to a more traditional, less incendiary version. Last year’s elegant Mandarin adaptation of the same play by Nelson Chia of Nine Years Theatre conveyed the same theme with far more delicacy.

Ivan Heng grounds the play with a solid, believable presence as Thomas: that quirky, slightly stubborn man who clings on to the truth and refuses to be swayed come what may. His Thomas is slightly cocky and impulsive but ultimately comes across as a deeply loving family man; his exchanges with his wife and children display genuine warmth and colour. There is strong support by Serene Chen as Thomas's steadfast wife, Yap Yi Kai as his righteous daughter and Gerald Chew as a pragmatic publisher. Kudos also to John Sebastian Tan for a commendable turn as Thomas's son Edmund, a little activist in the making.

There are some uneven performances amongst the cast. Ghafir Akbar as maverick left-wing editor proves patchy both in accent and acting; his sudden amorous advance to Thomas's daughter Patricia is incongruous and it's difficult to reconcile his initial friendliness with the viciousness he displays to Thomas during the public lecture. Kee Thuan Chye as Thomas's wealthy father-in-law, whose factory is revealed to be one of the pollutants, spends most of his time on stage shouting and does not seem to know what to do with his walking stick. Veteran star Lim Kay Siu also lacks the brash, vindictive streak one would expect from a truly self-interested man of authority.

Public Enemy is bolstered by strong production values. Wong Chee Wai's set is a grandiose, affair of sliding metallic windows, doors and compartments that neatly create little acting spaces while suggesting an ominous Big Brother feel. Laichan clothes the cast in a slick visual palette of blacks, whites and greys, allowing the incriminating red envelope containing Thomas's report to stand out like a sore thumb. The sound and lighting design by frequent collaborators Darren Ng and James Tan also work well to underscore the mounting tension.

Director Glen Goei excels in both filling the vastness of the stage with spectacle and in creating intimate tableaus. He keeps the pacing tight and never lets our attention slide throughout the 100-minute run, played without an intermission. The public lecture scene in particular is extremely well executed: the house lights are turned on, an ensemble joins the audience and we are made to feel like we are part of the raucous crowd at a live event. It's a terrific way of drawing the audience in and folding them into the very structure of the play itself.

W!LD RICE has always been a company with an unabashedly political streak and this riveting, high-octane production is an apt reminder of the dangers of democracy, an ideal which so many people are quick to endorse. It leaves one charged-up, provoked and, as one staggers out of the theatre, hopefully a little enlightened as well.

The Crystalwords score: 4/5

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

10 April 2015

The Weight of Silk on Skin

by Huzir Sulaiman
The Esplanade: The Studios - fifty
Esplanade Theatre Studio, Singapore

Huzir Sulaiman's The Weight of Silk on Skin, a masterful monodrama about Singapore's upper class, was one of the highlights of the 2011 theatre calendar. Acclaimed by audiences and critics alike, it went on to win Best Original Script at the Life! Theatre Awards 2012 and was immortalized in a new collection of Huzir's plays launched by Checkpoint Theatre in 2013. I'm ever so glad that Silk is back on stage as one of the five headlining plays of The Studios' monumental all-Singapore season, fifty

Silk plays out in the dressing room of wealthy, middle-aged playboy John Au Yong. He's a man at the very pinnacle of Singapore society: he went to all the right schools and has all the right connections to allow him to glide effortlessly through life. John whisks us from the salty promiscuousness of his present to his heady days of student romance in Eighties New York and his return to the crisp, moneyed world of Nineties Singapore. As he dresses for a black-tie gala where he hopes to reunite with his ex-girlfriend and love of his life, Anna, he slowly opens up, exposing a rawness of emotion that even the finest suit cannot mask.

This production of Silk is helmed by an entirely different team from its 2011 premiere as part of the Man Singapore Theatre Festival. The result is an altogether richer, more intimate and evocative experience. Director Tracie Pang displays great sensitivity to the script and makes subtle but important additions that enhance the text. Adding a mobile phone for John to witheringly respond to a PRC paramour gives the bitterness of his lines more thrust. Music is seamlessly integrated into the narrative. I also liked the detail of John gradually fortifying himself with whiskey throughout the play, the alcohol forming just one more layer which he uses to hide his real self from the world.

Adrian Pang turns in a superb performance as John and even if I found his almost careless muttering of certain passages frustrating, he truly conjures up the character with all its manifold contradictions. Pang conveys that insouciance and sense of entitlement that only comes with class and there is a conscious effort to rein in his sometimes showy acting, allowing the words to speak for themselves. It's no mean feat talking non-stop for ninety minutes and Pang keeps us rapt throughout, giving the character an unforgettable stamp of his own.

Working with set designer Wai Yin Kwok, Tracie presents us with a gorgeous, glossy backdrop of a male walk-in wardrobe, complete with mannikin, shaving basin and plush leather chair. The black box venue with seating on three sides of the acting space does the play a great favour, giving it the intimacy of a confessional, an aspect which the original production lacked. There is also particularly impressive lighting work by Lim Yu-Beng that elevates the narrative. The back panels of the wardrobe glow red, then switch to blue as John takes us from the world of seedy Manhattan to squeaky-clean Singapore. Lights fade almost imperceptibly as he describes staying awake all night till the sun rises. The return to Singapore is cleverly marked by a harsh overhead glare.

Suffice to say, Huzir's writing itself is a treat in its own right. There is a musicality to his words that is akin to poetry and one cannot help but marvel at the sharpness of his observations. The text is awash with delicious description of shoes, shirts and suits, material objects which a man like John enjoys having around him and which each tell their own unique story. A perfectly crafted shoe, that "hollow leather coffin", appeals to John because of its constancy and timelessness which is sharply contrasted with the faithlessness of the female sex.

My only real issue, which finally reared its head after four years, is the character of John itself. While it's undeniable that the text is beautifully written, there is an artificiality about this modern-day lothario that gnaws at me. Who exactly is this man? Is he based on anyone from real life? I've certainly encountered people from this world from my own days at school and currently in the relentless financial world of Shenton Way. However, I've never quite met a man who speaks in this strange manner, throwing out casual Wildean aphorisms about one night stands and likening shaved vaginas to a minimalist, muted economy. It's all very well on the page but it's hard to be drawn in when one is bombarded with ornate strings of words from someone who is meant to be a real, authentic person.

It's worth asking if this effusion of language is really necessary to paint a picture about this elite sub-stratum of the country. When John tells us how he felt his "JC littleness slough off like a skin" when he was mugged and held at gunpoint in a New York subway station, it just feels too contrived. If you've really had a gun pointed at your throat, I'm not sure you would be distracted by details like the colour of the gun itself. It's perhaps due to statements like this that I'm simply unable to be moved by the closing arc of the narrative, which sees John as a desperate, broken man simply wanting to be loved. His plea "please be with me" rings hollow and it's hard to suddenly weep for a man who has maintained such a flighty, phantasmagorical presence throughout.

Tracie's stellar direction and Adrian's nuanced performance have given Silk a superb treatment that is a pleasure to watch. While I applaud Huzir for doing such a meticulous job in lifting the veil on this gilded world of privilege, a small part of me just wishes he had left us with an actual piece of John to connect with once the lights have finally dimmed.

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5

03 April 2015

Emily of Emerald Hill

by Stella Kon
The Esplanade: The Studios - fifty
Esplanade Theatre Studio, Singapore

Emily of Emerald Hill is a play so firmly lodged in our theatrical consciousness that it comes as no surprise that it was chosen to kick off the Esplanade's unprecedented Studios season, fifty, featuring full-length revivals of and dramatised readings from fifty local plays over the span of five weeks. In the three decades since it was written, Stella Kon's monodrama has seen numerous revivals, both locally and abroad, including acclaimed productions featuring Margaret Chan and Ivan Heng. It's been the subject of academic commentary, a museum exhibition and even a musical adaptation. And this is in no small part to the wonderful character of Emily Gan: wife, mother and Peranakan matriarch par excellence.

So I suppose the natural question one would ask is, "How is she?". Does Karen Tan, stepping into the celebrated role for the first time in this intimate production directed by Aidli 'Alin' Mosbit, do justice to the kebaya?

Tan is a more than capable actor who has shown tremendous empathy in productions such as Frozen, Goh Lay Kuan and Kuo Pao Kun and To Whom It May Concern. Yet, I sense that she has not quite slipped under the skin of Emily. It takes a certain dramatic flair and chutzpah to command the stage for a full ninety minutes, conjuring up a gilded world of culture and tradition and an eclectic host of characters. Despite a very earnest effort, Tan feels like she has not quite warmed up for her big moment in the spotlight.

Part of this is due to the fact that she tears through the first couple of pages of the script, occasionally stumbling over the words and not letting their weight and intensity delicately descend upon the audience. It's a skill which an actor like Ivan Heng in particular excels at, giving his Emily a solid, three-dimensional presence. Although Tan does eventually find her groove, one never gets the feeling that she's completely at one with the character.

Still, there are plenty of moments when Tan's emotion shines through the polished façade of Emily's exterior. In a heartwrenching scene, she orders her servants to churn ice-cream, her voice catching as she remembers that it was her late son's favourite food. In another sequence, she describes her anguish at being prevented from seeing her emotionally estranged husband while he lies on his deathbed in the hospital. Tan reminds us, in her own powerful way, that for all Emily's domestic achievements, her greatest failure in life was not managing to please her husband and eldest son despite her best efforts.

Set designer Wong Chee Wai opts for a minimalist look with a white thrust stage surrounded by the audience on all three sides. It's a return to the basics of storytelling, using nothing more than the audience's imagination to conjure up a colourful world marked by family, food and festivity.

It's however frustrating that sections of the play have been embellished with tedious effects and props; this is a common pitfall directors face when dealing with large amounts of text. There are bizarre spots of light between scenes and voice effects during seminal speeches that detract from the rich cadences of the dialogue. The image of Emily dragging out a giant patchwork quilt towards the end also proves a clunky visual metaphor. It would have served Alin and her team well to keep the production as clean and unaffected as possible.

On a final note, it's important to ask if this Emily adds anything new to a piece of theatre which already boasts such a rich cultural history. While it's far from a definitive staging, where this Emily excels is in bringing out the quiet loneliness of growing old. The image that ultimately lingered with me was of an elderly Emily left alone in a crumbling mansion, sounds of construction pressing in upon her from all sides, the life she described in so much loving detail nothing more than a distant memory. The play becomes less of a treatise on Peranakan culture and a simpler, more human story about a once formidable person who is reduced to being a spectator amidst a relentless tide of change. It's perhaps a slightly depressing way to view the play but in the context of a society where the old perennially makes way for the new, this might well be the way to take Emily into the twenty-first century.

The Crystalwords score: 3/5

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

26 March 2015

Pioneer (Girls) Generation

by Haresh Sharma
The Necessary Stage
Gallery Theatre, National Museum of Singapore

The Necessary Stage must be lauded for being the one of the only major theatre companies today to provide an active platform for seniors to get involved in all aspects of the theatre. Its dedicated Theatre for Seniors (TFS) programme has been around for a good seven years and its graduates have performed at various community events and professional theatre productions, proudly reminding us that age is no barrier to being a great thespian.

Pioneer (Girls) Generation, written by Haresh Sharma and directed by Alvin Tan, features three of these TFS graduates. The title is both an homage to the generation of pioneers who have helped shape our nation's history and a cheeky reference to a South Korean girl group and the bonds of female friendship forged over decades by three of the lead characters.

The play is set at a posh Singapore retirement home whose occupants live the sort of glamorous, insouciant lifestyles that wouldn't be out of place in Sex and the City. When the management at the home decides to raise the monthly rent, forcing one of the occupants to leave, her three friends rally together to stage a charity fundraising concert to help her with the costs.

The four lead actors bounce off each other very well and are a delight to watch; their exchanges are lived-in, lively and full of wonderful cross-cultural strains that make them instantly relatable. Padma Sagaram, last seen in The Necessary Stage main season productions Gitanjali and October, displays great comic timing as the sassy Marilyn. Stage and screen veteran Catherine Sng provides dramatic heft with her emotive diatribes. Younger cast members Dwayne Lau and Audrey Luo also provide good support in an assortment of entertaining bit roles.

Alongside the mostly light-hearted squabbling amongst the characters, Sharma offers us a glimpse into moments of quiet longing for an estranged child or a cherished loved one, reminding us that these individuals are real and ultimately human. The characters, with their fractured private lives, band together for a sense of community and comfort and the play is remarkably clear-eyed in this regard, reminding us of the importance of the love and friendships that nourish us in our silver years.

It’s certainly refreshing to see seniors being given meaty roles that are not confined to the stock parent or grandparent character. However, there seems to be an almost gratuitous desire to make the exchanges as raunchy or provocative as possible. While there's absolutely no reason to assert that these characters aren't entitled to a rich and colourful life of their own, references to pubic hair, sagging breasts and a full-blown song and dance number with the refrain "fuck you very much" are deliberately crude and, to me, in poor taste.

One also wishes that the plot had remained focused on the lives of the seniors instead of meandering into a secondary storyline about a scheming PRC woman (daughter-in-law of one of the occupants) and a Filipino retirement home manager who aim to thwart the seniors' plans for their own material gain. Certain scenes could also have easily been trimmed and the numerous interludes unfortunately give the play the feel of an insipid television sitcom or sketch comedy show.

Quibbles aside, Pioneer (Girls) Generation is an altogether fun night out at the theatre and watching this sprightly group of seniors, it's impossible not to leave without a smile on one's face. In defiantly turning its back on morbid issues like death and disease, The Necessary Stage has given us an alternative narrative on ageing that is fun, feisty and ultimately heartwarming.

The Crystalwords score: 3/5

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