Action Speaks Louder With Words
Of soups, fruits and suits
By Richard Lord
Action Theatre is certainly riding the crest of local theatre acclaim right now. Having garnered more nominations and awards than any other company at this year’s Life! Theatre Awards, they saw their 2002 Arts Fest offering, Mammon, Inc. treated to the barrage of pre-show publicity usually reserved for big sports events. We critique Mammon in another piece in this issue, but here we would like to look briefly at the two other shows Action mounted in the first half of this year.
One general point first. Although the name Action Theatre might suggest this is a group interested more in energetic staging and visual pyrotechnics, it is actually one local company that puts a premium on the text. Almost all its recent productions have showcased plays that rely on the basics - dialogue, character, structure - to reap their effects. Action remains a company that has faith in the spoken word and actors’ abilities to turn these words into a vibrant world on stage. All three Action productions we look at this issue are prime examples of this orientation - and all three are by local writers to boot.
Desmond Sim’s Autumn Tomyam opened last August, snared an armful of Life! theatre awards and walked off with three, including Best Play and Best Original Script. Of the nominees I saw, Tomyam was most deserving of these two biggies. Seven months after its first run, the play returned in a slightly revised production, with only one cast change and some minor tweaking of the text. Having had time to steep and take it all the seasonings of its plot and character interactions, this second serving of Tomyam was even a little better than the first, as delectable as that one was.
The one cast replacement was for Best Actress nominee Tan Kheng Hua as the Singaporean wife of a retired American diplomat who in retirement finds the latch on his closet and turns a young Thai masseur into his live-in lover back in California. This time around, Karen Tan took on the role of Marge, the wife.
Let us put aside the fact that the soft-featured, uncrinkled Tan strains all credibility as one who had been a diplomat’s wife for 26 years. (She looks like she would have had to marry while still in the womb to pull that one off). Karen Tan’s Marge is less feisty, more vulnerable than Kheng Hua’s. The first Marge presented us with a seasoned fighter, one whose grit almost spilled out in her most trying moments. Her pain was buffered with a layer of flinty resolve and spiked with resentment. With Karen Tan, we see the woman’s pain more easily; her anger and her determination are always tempered with pain and self-questioning. Two quite different readings of this central character, and both work quite well.
The other two central characters, Joe the retired diplomat and Tid, the young lover, were again handled commendably but not as movingly as either Marge. John O’May and Edwin in their repeat performances still seemed to be acting the roles nicely, but not fully as those characters.
Sandy Phillips, recently given the Life! Best Supporting Actress award for her portrayal of Joe’s sister during the first run, was clearly stronger on the second go-round. I actually found Phillip’s August rendition somewhat unsatisfying, and had problems accepting the character on those grounds.
But to stay with a gastronomic idiom, by the April production, the tannins in Phillips’ performance had softened appreciably. The sister’s rough edges were still there, but one had the sense of affection and warmth beyond these edges. While still playing a bit broadly at points, Phillips seemed more at ease with the role, not punching things out as much. She also gave up trying to affect an American accent, which she had only occasional success the first time round.
The supporting roles were again carried out as well as one might expect from Annie Ferrao and Daniel Duyen Le. Ekachai Uekrongtham’s direction was again smooth and assured, keeping the action paced nicely while maintaining the difficult emotional balance between the disparate characters in an admirable manner.
As mentioned, Desmond Sim’s engaging text had undergone a few minor changes by the second production, with suggestions that the playwright was open to even more adjustments. If Sim and Action are thinking of taking this show abroad - and it deserves an even wider audience than what the Lion City can provide - I would like to suggest that it undergo even further alterations before it wraps up the show and takes it on the road.
For instance, the play still contains a bit of exposition which was obviously beneficial for local consumption, but would become too much for others, especially in America. Marge’s opening phone call with her mother back in Singapore goes on just a tad too long, with the extra length consisting almost entirely of exposition the mother would probably not need. Plus, there is no need for Marge to remind Joe, a native American and California resident that Orange County, outside LA, is a conservative place. Throughout America, Orange County is a virtual synonym for political conservatism. Back in the Northeast, we used to joke that Orange County was so conservative, kids there go around door-to-door selling Hitler Youth cookies.
The text has a number of these little fillers, but they are minor distractions. More significant is the dinner Joe’s sister holds, where she unpleasantly surprises everyone by including Joe, Marge and Tid. This triangulation can be seen as a cruel trick, and the abrupt, unpleasant end of the dinner is all too predictable. The sister obviously has her reasons for this, but Sim has to give her a line or two where she tries to explain why she feels this line-up of guests will really be the best, if harsh, medicine for all involved.
Also, the US immigration agent who adds an extra strain of dramatic tension to things is drawn close to caricature. This character and his methods could actually become more chilling by fitting him out with more human dimensions.
And then there is the ending. After we learn that Tid is actually probably straight and his ultimate dream is of finding a nice woman back home, marrying her and settling down to raise a family, he and Joe move back to Thailand to share their lives together, with the blessings of all at the airport. (Okay, Marge’s blessings are grudging.) This is much too quick and convenient a turnaround into the realm of a quasi-happy ending. At the very least, we need to see more uncertainties about the decision, and not just in Tid.
Some may even question whether an older gay man and a young, straight stud-muffin can ever find long-term contentment together. Though maybe the situation for Joe and Tid is akin to what some feminist critics used to say about the ending of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House: the real drama for Nora starts after she slams that door shut. Maybe the real drama for these two sympathetic characters is also about to start. Well, autumn is always followed by winter, so perhaps Desmond Sim has a Winter Tomyam simmering somewhere. Based on the quality of his Autumn concoction, it is something we might well look forward to.
Action’s predilection for plays with food motifs was expressed in another interesting piece of theatre back in June - Fruit Plays. Originally planned as a programme of six or seven plays, all of them 20-30 minute monologues by women, all of them with a fruit theme, the show wound up being a rather short evening of two plays, Human Heart Fruit by Stella Kon and The Swallowed Seed by Jean Tay. Kon’s piece looked at the squeezed life of a woman in HDB Heartland trapped in an abusive marriage. Tay’s work presented a thirty-something career woman still bearing the deep internal scars of childhood abuse.
The narrator of Swallowed Seed, Sheryl, is actually the victim of two forms of childhood abuse: the sexual abuse by an uncle and the psychological abuse by her mother who kept nagging her not to talk so much. The second abuse, we quickly come to see, extended the duration of the first and compounded its humiliation and sense of helplessness.
Sheryl now spends much of her time in the bathroom, sitting on the toilet, the seat of wisdom from which she delivers this narrative. Said narrative twists and turns around the bitter roots of her familial abuse, resulting in a poetry of the grotesque from this woman who has learned to talk out, but still fells the choke of silence within.
The abuse by Sheryl’s uncle started shortly after she had eaten a rambutan and accidentally swallowed the seed. Today, perched on her toilet podium, she sees her unsatisfying life in metaphors around this swallowed seed and the shame it brought her. An unwanted pregnancy calls forth visions of a crushed uterus and womb, and she suffers dreams of a tree growing out of her head. And never can she abandon the cramped sanctuary of the bathroom.
This is pretty rough stuff actually, and it could well have become deadly theatre without a very able actress handling the material. Thankfully for the play, veteran actress Nora Samosir gave us a very solid performance, holding us all the way through this painful account. Samosir pitched her Sheryl at just the right level: we, of course, sympathise with the character, but not so much that we lose the dynamic of three close relatives injuring each other in their own ways. Tay and Samosir make Sheryl something more interesting than just a hapless victim: that swallowed seed has grown into a most bitter fruit. With Samosir showing its effects in a sad, chilling manner, this dark side of the victim spins out well.
Samosir also played Jenny, the narrator of the evening’s opening piece by Stella Kon. Jenny is caught in a long-time unhappy marriage with Joe. Now that unhappy union has taken a decided turn for the worse as Joe finds himself temporarily confined to a wheelchair, the result of an accident. His new invalid status seems to have rolled Joe along the dark corridors of paranoid fantasy, and he starts accusing Jenny of infidelity, of stealing from him, even of intentionally trying to serve him up bad meals. As Joe’s paranoia festers, his abuse grows until it provokes the inevitable. Here, too, the victim finds a way to swing around victimhood.
Kon’s text is actually a more strongly crafted piece than Tay’s, the story more gripping, the fruit metaphor - in this case the chiku, known in Chinese as the ‘human heart fruit’ - more suggestive. But, sadly, it was not possible to tell this during the Action Theatre production. This was not the fault of Nora Samosir, but the perverse staging by director Low Kee Hong.
Low somehow came up with the idea of moving the play out of the kitchen, where it is set in Kon’s script, and taking away Jenny’s key props. Instead, he has Samosir deliver her monologue on the evening’s joint set composed of five toilets set around the stage. (With two other toilets hanging upside down from the ceiling for good measure; these contain stage lights, one of them serving as the place where Samosir starts the evening.)
Husband Joe, silenced, also sits on the stage with Jenny in Kon’s original conception, but in this rendition Jenny was all alone, moving from toilet to toilet, addressing the air, pulling chiku out of toilets and eating it as she moves through her monologue.
This fanciful staging threw the focus on Nora Samosir’s talents, allowing her to show these talents off well, but it was grossly unfair to Stella Kon. A play is, after all, more than just words, and when a playwright composes a play, the space, the necessary props, the psychological environment all play a key part. Changes can and should be made when necessary, but when changes are arbitrary swings that flaunt the imagination of director or actor to the great detriment of the original text, they unduly deprive the playwright of a key part of her expression.
Neither was the direction here entirely fair to Jean Tay’s play, as the two works, staged without a pause, flowed right into each other. For some minutes after The Swallowed Seed started, I and at least three other audience members (many more, I suspect) thought we were still in Human Heart Fruit, with a sudden spin back into childhood memories. And it took a while longer before we made the full psychological adjustment to Tay’s world.
Supposedly, the strategy was to effect an abrupt lighting change which would signal the end of one play, the beginning of the next. If there was any such change of lights, it was not visible to the naked eye.
A director has a responsibility to the play as written, and Low clearly abrogated his responsibility in this case. I feel sorry for both playwrights involved, especially Stella Kon, and cannot allow such an abuse of directorial powers to go unanswered. It is just a shame that the two authors of Fruit Plays did not have as sensitive and supportive a director as Desmond Sim did in Ekachai Uekrongtham. The show would almost certainly have been much, much better as well as truer to the vision of its ultimate authors.