Sexual Identity Checks
Sex in the time of uncertainty
By Richard Lord
The opening months of the 2002 Singapore theatre season saw three widely anticipated plays, each of which dealt with the exploration of sexual identities - or sexual indemnities - in times of uncertainties and insecurities within the general sweep of social and personal realignments. Each of the three is set in a different country, but each bears important similarities to the other two. Here we look at all three.
In what is probably the most inconvenient theatre space in all Singapore, Toy Factory's bantam box space, we were recently regaled by two shows squeezed into the claustrophobic confines in varying ways. And both of these shows dealt rather intelligently with the issue of working out sexual identities in our post-Modernist societies.
The first of these plays, Beautiful Thing, a British audience fave from the 90's by Jonathan Harvey, is a work which celebrates the joys of young, gay love. Indeed, Harvey portrays this love as a singular form of escape from the dreariness souring life in working-class Britain towards the end of the long Tory regency.
The play focuses on Jamie and Ste, two teenagers trying to cobble together happiness and a stable life within two families who aren't particularly conducive to such things.
Jamie is shy, closed-off, awkward, not very athletic. His barmaid mother, Sandra, tries to instill the lad with some zest for living, in between her running off to her job or a date or whatever happens to get her through the night. It's not long before we question how much of Sandra's own zest is authentic, how much stoked to keep up a brave front.
Ste, who lives just upstairs from this pair, is everything a red-blooded teenage boy should be - physically attractive, good at sports, unself-consciously charming, popular with all the girls. He's got everything but happiness.
A major part of Ste's problem, we discover, is his maniacally macho, physically abusive father. Another part of his problem is that for all the female adulation he receives, Ste can't fully relate to all these girls who are so drawn to him. When he eventually stays overnight with Jamie to escape another bruising bout of "hard love' from his brutal father, the missing pieces of the puzzle come together for both boys. (A little too conveniently for the plot, the two lads share the sleeping space.) The "beautiful thing" of Harvey's title is the emotional-cum-physical relationship that quickly blooms between the two, a relationship whose beauty allows them to transcend all the ugliness that surrounds and once threatened to drown them.
The Toy Factory English version of this play (they also mounted a Mandarin version), under the direction of Beatrice Chia, managed to capture much of the play's energy and vibrancy. Chia and her cast kept the action moving along at a nice clip, which helped to cover over some of the textual weaknesses. But the production was unhappily burdened with enough weaknesses of its own to keep it from being a totally praiseworthy project.
The accents, for instance, caused a bit of a problem as they never established the working-class London milieu the play is set in. For instance, Mark Richmond's character, a self-proclaimed "artist" who's involved with Jamie's mother, is the most comic figure in the show, but would have been even more so if Richmond's accent had not been so polished. A contrast between this character's pretensions and his speaking style would have worked deliciously, a la vintage Joe Orton. Ultimately, Richmond's ability to convey physical and emotional awkwardness allowed this character to offer good support to the production, but fell short of being a superb performance as the character did not seem to be a perfect fit for the actor.
Kevin Murphy's Ste actually starts out with a good working-class London accent, but his accent did shift a little bit upmarket as the play moved on. But this was a small matter; his Ste was a quite commendable creation for a young actor still in the early stage of his career. In Murphy's hands, Ste engaged us right from the start as we followed the youthful bliss of his self-discovery and the discovery of a new love.
Caleb Goh is actually more physically attractive than Murphy, though Murphy's much stronger acting skills do make him ultimately the more appealing of the two young lovers. Goh was, in fact, the weakest element in the cast, his acting often overdrawn and overdone, relying more on affect than effect. This was unfortuante indeed, as a stronger presence for Jamie would have made this central relationship exactly what the play needs if it is to succeed totally.
Janice Koh's performance as Sandra, Jamie's mother, was somewhat spotty. At the most poignant moments, Koh hit the right tones, but in Sandra's shrill moments she tended to substitute volume for sharpness. This Sandra would have been so more effective had Koh more thoroughly explored some of the deeper parts of the character.
Emma Yong - who is apparently significantly older than the character she portrayed - moved nicely from being attractive in a sexually awkward manner to making herself unattractive in that way teenagers sometimes do. Her character, Leah, is held together by such fragile hinges she readily becomes unhinged, which Yong effected nicely before swinging around again sharply, thus allowing Leah to steel herself against the world's fickle attention through her music and other adolescent evasions.
Although I caught the play on the last night of a four-week run, it still had this sense of not having fully come together, that the essential juices had not yet fully fermented. While all the individual performances had at least something to praise them for, the whole just didn't add up to a winning production.
And this play needs just such a winning presentation. It's a warm but minor piece, and somebody over there at Toy Factory seems to have changed Harvey's original ending with a facile wrap-up that came off as clumsy grabbing at a happy way out. (Sandra dumps her pompous boyfriend and heads off to a gay club with the two boys and Leah, who herself might be about to try on a new sexual identity.) Alright, the change could have worked, but when a script causes us to arch eyebrows upwards in skeptical regard, it falls upon the actors and director to work extra hard to make the thing believable. This Toy Factory edition didn't.
The second show to grace the Toy Factory space in the first quarter of 2002 was a guest production by Livid Room Productions, Stop Kiss. Stop Kiss was very possibly the most sniggered-about production in Singapore over the last half-year, thanks to its highly suggestive poster. Said poster featured two quite attractive young women snuggled together in bed, apparently covered only in sheets, a breath or two away from a passionate kiss. The promise of soft-core porn must have pulled in a lot of first-time theatre-goers who usually seek their entertainment elsewhere.
The posters, however, were all a deceptive tease. Both women remained chastely clad throughout the play, and the kiss that finally does ensue between the pair is short, abruptly halted by the violent act which brusquely vaults the play into another emotional dimension entirely.
In fact, the play itself, an award-winning piece from a couple of years back by New York playwright Diana Son, is anything but salacious. Indeed, the adjective that best describes Stop Kiss is "honest"; above all, this piece is deeply admirable precisely because it's honest enough to set its trajectory low and examine a number of small truths in an engaging way rather than trying to scale the peaks of some Large Statement.
The two central characters of Stop Kiss are Callie and Sara, two women defined not so much by their sexual identities as by the tenderness of their feelings for each other. As they say in more sophisticated circles, these two women do not choose their sexual orientation, they choose each other.
As the play opens, both women are stumbling out of long-term but unsatisfactory heterosexual relationships. They meet under stressed circumstances and are quickly drawn to one another. The uncertain exploration of the burgeoning feelings between Callie (played by Adelina Ong) and Sara (Esther Yap) make up the main trajectory of Stop Kiss, and the vicious attack they unwittingly trigger delivers the turnaround that spins the plot towards a sad but compelling measure of their feelings for each other. This denouement is also handled in an admirably restrained manner by writer Son, who skillfully manages to produce dramatic force without forcing it.
Stop Kiss is a show which would seem to profit nicely from the small, claustrophobic space the Toy Factory home base provides.
Unfortunately, some of this advantage was forfeited by the basic staging, the first of a number of key mistakes made by director Mark Richmond. Richmond did the show in the quasi-round, thus guaranteeing some bad sight lines for many parts of the audience and deflecting the emotional impact of certain scenes, particularly the police interrogation scenes.
Richmond also has to shoulder a large amount of blame for two key minor characters who were rather badly pitched - the police detective played by Beatrice Chia and the sole witness to the homophobic attack, as rendered by Chua Enlai. Richmond opted for - or at least allowed - these two characters to be portrayed as broad caricatures. Chia's Detective Cole came on as a slightly menacing bull dike complete with leather ensemble, while Chua's Mr Winsley was a model of badly poised pomposity. What Richmond and these actors apparently failed to see is that in a small theatre such as this, the hollowness of caricatures are only amplified as they echo against the tight confines of the space. What purpose, pray tell, is served by turning witness Mr Winsley into a comic figure who strains credibility while undermining his own, or suggesting Chia's detective is trying to hit on Callie when she should be trying to squeeze unpleasant facts of the attack out of this co-victim? More significantly, Chia's rough-hewn caricature draws focus off Callie, where it belongs, onto her own brassy personality.
Fortunately, Adelina Ong as Callie was quite able to hold her own in the interrogation scenes, drawing our sympathy and restoring a necessary psychological balance to these moments. Indeed, Ong was strong throughout, always giving Callie the right tone, the right definition. In some vehicles Ong has appeared in recently, she has operated at a one-pitched tone. Here, thankfully, she shows an admirable emotional range that makes the character of Callie come alive most convincingly.
Esther Yap's Sara was likewise a finely tuned portrayal, though Sara is a less expressive character who travels a shorter emotional range than does Callie. Still, Yap's assured performance combined nicely with Ong's to pull us into sharing some of the joy between these two young woman as they experience their new feelings.
Kevin Murphy appeared here again, this time doing a decent job of portraying Callie's occasional boyfriend George. For the most part, Murphy negotiated the twists and dips of this character skillfully, though his disgusted exit when discovering that emotional ties were developing between his girlfriend and another women also edged on caricature, a slip probably attributable to the fact that Murphy's still something of a newcomer on stage.
To be fair, it must also be said that both Beatrice Chia and Chua Enlai are significantly better in their two other minor roles, Chia as a control-freak nurse and Chua as Sara's estranged boyfriend Peter. In these roles, the two served the story nicely rather than knocking it off balance as they had earlier.
The third recent production that took up the matter of contemporary relationships was Tan Tarn How's Machine, performed at TheatreWorks' Black Box under the able direction of Jeremiah Choy. Tan, a respected journalist as well as scriptwriter for stage and television, is best known for his political plays, but with this piece, he shifts his focus to sexual politics and they way they often proceed. But here in Machine as in his political satires, Tan plows the smooth surface of Singapore's well-starched, well-behaved society to turn up some of the more uncomfortable issues of the island republic.
Tan's play is also the only one of these three which puts heterosexual relationships at its centre. In fact, all four of Machine's characters are straight - though not one of them is straight-talking or straight-dealing. In fact, it's an intricate mesh of small and not-so-small deceptions that knit the relationships between the two men and two women in Machine. Kim (Karen Tan) and Lina (Janice Koh) are two thirty-something room-mates, both suffering from emotional drought. Onto this scene arrive itinerant handymen Rex and Heng to repair the ladies' kaput washing machine, Lina's temperamental computer, and maybe even the ladies' emotional lives. Over the course of the play, our two anti-heroes succeed admirably at the first task, help get the PC perking again - and screw up the women's emotional lives even more. So what did you expect - a Tan turn towards spinning out fairy tales?
The two men are, at least on the surface, more intruiging than the women. Rex, the administrator, is a smooth operator, of the type who leaves a slight ooze of oil wherever he goes. Heng, the repairman, seems to be the more sensitive, more sincere partner, but as the play progresses we find ourselves wondering if he's not really the more insidious of the two.
The two women are splendid foils for this pair. Kim is looking for a meaningful relationship, while Lina appears ready to take any kind of relationship that comes rolling along, as long as good sex is a part of the package.
Kim, we're told early on, is mourning the loss of her fiancé, who died a short time before. But we soon learn that her dearly betrothed actually dumped her; the emotional scars are thus deeper and uglier. They're also more tempting for strangers like Rex and Heng to stroke.
What Lina seems to have lost is her internal roadmap to happiness and fulfillment. Somewhat successful as a career woman, she greets us and the two repairmen with the kind of chipper demeanour that tells us there's danger of emotional cave-ins occurring just below the surface. Dramatic tension develops and continues throughout the play as we wonder if any of the other characters, Kim included, will push those areas which might just result in a cave-in.
This basic outline suggests that the play could have been a trite, predictable piece stumbling over all too familiar terrain. But Tan mines this terrain with a number of interesting Pinteresque devices that delivers us from any boredom or been-here-seen-that dissatisfaction. The result is a well-paced comedy of menace à la Pinter, though one with a strong emotional foundation.
Director Jeremiah Choy's handling of the script was smooth, assured and unobtrusive. Choy respected the script and let it tell its story on its own cool terms. His direction illuminated the script and brought it to life admirably. My only misgivings about Choy's work are more like quibbles: he failed to make sure that the actors, especially Janice Koh as Lina, didn't step on laughs and in two scenes, supposedly widely separated in time, he allowed Rex to read the same section of the Straits Times.
The acting of this unstrung quartet was commendable all around, but not equally so. Highest praise goes to Janice Koh, who took what could well have been the least interesting character and makes of Lina a strong anchor for the whole production. True, Koh did occasionally rush her lines, particularly in the early going, but when the drama calls for a solid contribution from her character, Koh was more than adequate to the task. She also used her face extremely well throughout, delivering unspoken subtexts that enriched the fabric of the production.
Karen Tan was also good as Kim, though she did rely a bit too much on textbook readings of the emotionally scarred women, perhaps working within too narrow a range.
On the male side, Low Kee Hong gave us a Rex who followed all our expectations of the type. There were no miscues or weaknesses in Low's Rex, but no magical surprises either. Casey Lim was more impressive as Heng, slowly building layers of complexity as we watched this seemingly dull repairman develop into the more clever, more interesting of the two putative predators. Or maybe Heng is just a confused and used guy trying to make sense of shifting ethical guidelines.
That is one of the more engaging things about Tan's play, that it leaves us with a clutch of open questions at the end, questions which lead into interesting channels. Machine's very last scene proves a good authorial choice in this regard: the two women, now deserted by the men, sit silent, the washing machine, symbol of their superficial connections, humming away in full health. The doorbell suddenly rings, reprising the opening of the play when the two men first appeared. The women continue to sit silently, not moving a muscle to respond to the ringing.
This bleak scene suggests the well-run emptiness that many of us live our lives in. These, the play seems to say, are the things that can't be repaired because we no longer stock the needed parts. This particular machine just has to sit there, gathering dust, ever more dust.