This is What Happens to Pretty Girls

by Ken Kwek
Drama Centre Theatre, Singapore

In their last production, PANGDEMONIUM dragged us into the murky depths of cyber-bullying, teen suicide and modern parenting, asking pertinent questions about the society of today. It made for a poignant and uneasy evening as we took time to reflect on how we seem to have forgotten how to relate to one another on a personal level.

The uneasiness continues in This is What Happens to Pretty Girls, the company's response to the global #MeToo movement. Written by Ken Kwek, who is perhaps best remembered for his acclaimed films Sex.Violence.FamilyValues and Unlucky Plaza, the play explores sexual misconduct, harassment and the effects of trauma through a tapestry of interlocking tales.

In one plotline, a growing friendship between an undergraduate and a lecturer takes a sour turn when their feelings get the better of them, leaving them to deal with a sticky situation. Elsewhere, two co-workers head for drinks after an office party, resulting in a sex act which one party later claims had not been consensual. 

A third, discomfiting strand reminds us how the scars of a sexual encounter rarely subside. We follow a successful executive who is triggered by the sight of a childhood sexual aggressor and wants to hold the individual accountable after all these years. It's incredibly difficult to obtain closure after being violated in such a personal manner and survivors of an assault can spend years tearing themselves apart over what they had done to deserve being treated in that way.

Pretty Girls may have been in development since late 2017 but even Kwek and the PANGDEMONIUM team could not have expected the particular timeliness of the play. Barely a month ago, NUS undergraduate Monica Baey made headline news for calling out a male student who filmed her in the campus shower, prompting widespread discussion about whether she was an opportunist seeking to destroy his reputation or if her actions, which arose out of frustration against the authorities, were long overdue. Since then, several other cases of on-campus voyeurism have been reported in the press. Now, more than ever, is the time to have this conversation.

Photo Credit: Crispian Chan, PANGDEMONIUM

Kwek, who conducted extensive interviews with survivors of sexual assault and harassment as part of his research, crafts a nuanced story that offers no easy answers. Tackling a complex whirlpool of factors such as unequal power dynamics and implied consent, he creates characters that are utterly relatable and almost painful to watch. Under what circumstances is it right to call out a negative sexual encounter? Why do so many people choose to remain silent? It's perhaps telling that the words forming the play's title are uttered by one female character to another, suggesting that she had, in some way, asked for what happened to her.

Indeed, the play and its many shades of grey make for difficult viewing. In the heat of the moment, it's difficult to read the signals people give off and pass clear judgement. Should one be culpable for a sexual act if one assumed consent had been given? When does workplace banter cross into the territory of sexual harassment? Is it right to blame someone for a youthful misdemeanour and hold it over their heads years later? One is unable to escape the weight of the discomfort  and the unresolved, open-ended nature of these stories offer little consolation.

Photo Credit: Crispian Chan, PANGDEMONIUM

Director Tracie Pang has assembled a stellar cast of eight actors who deliver honest, heart-wrenching performances. Newcomer Tess  Pang makes an arresting stage debut as a spunky millennial who makes a controversial allegation. There are equally strong turns by Oon Shu An as a woman trying to navigate a complex relationship, Serene Chen as an intermediary placed in an invidious position and Adrian Pang as a potty-mouthed man-child with a dark secret. 

Set designer and frequent collaborator Eucien Chia cleverly incorporates aspects of topography and the human anatomy into his set, alluding to the blatant bodily objectification and murky contours that dominate conversations about sex. James Tan and Genevieve Peck's sensuous lighting and  Jing Ng's disconcerting soundscapes round out the emotionally charged atmosphere.

Photo Credit: Crispian Chan, PANGDEMONIUM

While there's no denying the urgency of these stories, the two-and-a-half-hour script is in dire need of some editing. The first half proceeds in a rather plodding fashion as we weave through numerous expository scenes and alternate between left and right as individual storylines play out in their designated spaces. This may work well in a film but contributes to a sluggish pace. Things only begin to pick up when the fateful acts are committed and various connections are revealed but this takes far too long to happen, making for an uneven text.

Pretty Girls is a timely reminder of the dangers of sexual misconduct and the importance of awareness to mitigate these issues. It would be wishful thinking to assume that these matters would disappear overnight but through understanding, we can play our part to shape attitudes, reframe the narrative and treat each other with the respect we all deserve.

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5


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