__ Can Change

by Haresh Sharma
The Necessary Stage
Esplanade Recital Studio, Singapore

___ Can Change, originally staged by The Necessary Stage in 2010 and now updated for a new audience, is a curious and compelling play. The play is divided into three segments where individuals who do not subscribe to majoritarian views are able to see the "errors" of their ways and change for good. It opens as  a peppy government workshop, where a group of civil servants deliver a PowerPoint presentation which advocates community and family values over individual ones, rejecting Westernized notions as exemplified by hashtags such as #metoo and #lovewins.

Photo Credit: Tuckys Photography

The first playlet, Indians Can Change, is a brand new one which replaces Singles Can Change in the original staging. It features Devaki (Masturah Oli), an Indian Singaporean bank executive who is upset over her colleagues' use of brownface at a company D&D. She does not get much sympathy from a HR manager (Karen Tan) and an external counsellor brought in to remedy the issue (Lian Sutton). It's a textbook example of a minority being gaslit, dealing with microaggressions and forced to question and doubt her own feelings. Things culminate in a town hall, cleverly including the audience as fellow employees of the bank, where Devaki makes a statement saying she has moved on from the incident and appears to be appeased. 

The second playlet, Homosexuals Can Change, centres round a young man (Joshua Lim) who comes out to his conservative Christian mother (Karen Tan). She in turn seeks advice from her pastor and explores counselling options. Eventually, the man decides to break things off with his lover (Lian Sutton) and marry a girl, being apparently happy at his decision to embrace a happy, heterosexual lifestyle.

The final playlet, Marxists Can Change, is where things get more meta-theatrical. The cast return in the guise of civil servants and present a slide show detailing how Alvin Tan and Haresh Sharma of TNS participated in a Marxist worship in 1993 and were under investigation for using theatre as a political device. It goes to show how they managed to salvage their reputation over the years by working with numerous community groups, earning accolades such as the Young Artist Award and the Cultural Medallion. Yet, they recently lost their home of 20 years and will be forced to operate out of an independent industrial venue, suggesting that a black mark may still remain on their names.  

Photo Credit: Tuckys Photography

The ensemble cast is energetic and competent. Masturah Oli does a good job as an aggrieved woman desperate to make her stand while theatre veteran Karen Tan shines as an unsympathetic administrator and disappointed mother. However, the chemistry between the two men in the second part seems forced, making this feel almost farcical in tone. Alvin Tan’s devising methodology clearly works well in a production like this and the cast perform well in the town hall, answering questions from the audience very competently in character.

In the 2010 staging, there was an ambivalent tone where one was constantly left wondering what the intention of the production was. Was TNS trying to espouse conformity with majoritarian values in line with government policies and suggest that anyone who pursues an alternative lifestyle or mentality should conform? Or was it a thinly veiled satire on mainstream Singaporean values that advocates for the importance of adopting a pluralist approach that embraces myriad viewpoints? 

The first two playlets give us that ambivalence, leaving us guessing as to the characters’ (and the company's) real intentions.  Indeed, with the post-show dialogue that is cleverly wrapped into the first segment, this could well have functioned as a standalone piece and would have been rich and topical, leaving us genuinely guessing as to Devaki's intentions. Judging from the responses coming from members of the audience who were largely on the side of Devaki, one senses that the story really strikes a nerve.

However, this is unfortunately muddled by the end where Tan and Sharma come on stage for the ‘real’ post-show dialogue and display an attitude that appears to be very much indignant about the situation that their company is in. They cite how civil servants who had previously advocated for them have lost their heart and become careerists and bureaucrats. If they had remained poker-faced and not disclosed their real intentions (much like in the original staging), we would have been left guessing if they themselves had really changed and this would have made for a richer viewing experience.

One cannot deny that like so many other TNS productions dealing with topical issues, ___ Can Change is urgent, provocative and compelling. It may leave one feeling a little confused but it’s impossible to walk away from this production without wondering whether we should be the ones to change for society or if it should it be the other way round. 

The Crystalwords score: 3/5

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