Three Women In Three Views
At the Substation, three scripts get made into nine plays
By Richard Lord
The monologue, the longer monologue, is where theatre most approximates the act of walking a tightrope without a net. There is precious little to aid the actor. If s/he stumbles too deeply, there is nothing to break the fall.
The playwright and director are both part of this act, sharing vicariously in the danger. It is the playwright’s task to construct a cable that is not too thin, that embodies a tensile strength to support all suitably talented actors who may dare his or her script.
The director’s task is to keep the rope taut, training the actor, showing him or her the hazards and safe places, making sure the steps taken will not never be too small or too large, the force applied just enough to maintain that tautness and ensure a successful journey across the rope.
Recently, a splendid experiment in this form was carried out at The Substation which, while not always thoroughly successful, was unfailingly interesting from start to finish. In this experiment, we were treated to three very different versions of three monologues by local theatre veteran Verena Tay. Bearing the umbrella title 3 Men Meet 3 Women, the trio of monologues were performed by three different actresses - one young lady, one early middle-aged lady, and one not quite a lady at all. (More about that soon.) The show’s title reflects the fact that these three monologues of female characters were helmed by three different male directors, each of the directors working with just one of the performers, guiding her or him through all three journeys.
The three pairings were Richard Chua and E. Seah; Ferlin Jayatissa and Jocelyn Chua; and Sonny Lim with Elizabeth de Roza.
The project must have presented considerable challenges to be overcome, and it could not have happened without a team dedicated to seeing it all through. This holds for the actors, the directors, even the lighting and sound people, designers and operators.
The pressures on the latter produced a bundle of technical hurdles over the course of the three evenings, and a few gaffes along the way: Some of the fade-outs between scenes in the first night’s opening monologue could have been held a couple of beats longer. Then, on the final evening, the sound gremlins took a part in the activities.
But for the most part, these technical elements also seemed to play nicely through all the changes demanded of the crew.
The sexiest woman to appear over the entire three evenings was a man. E. Seah was simply marvellous as this transsexual in The Perfect Shoe, a little gem in which the character recounts a sad tale about the search for perfect shoes for her sister‘s wedding. This playlet was, by far, the best of the three in the programme. It casts a critical yet sympathetic eye at a number of Singapore obsessions: the proper look; one’s duties to the family; the national pastime of shopping, especially when bargains are involved.
We men, who spend most of our lives in sandals, slippers and sensible heels, are probably unaware of how daunting the task of finding that “perfect shoe” is for women. Playwright Tay compounds this problem for her heroine by giving her feet larger than the average Singaporean woman. All the best shoes this lady finds are a size or three too small. Thus, finding a pair that have just the right look and the right fit becomes a quest for the holy grail of footwear, and tour lady guide in this monologue goes at it with the determination of any mid-level medieval knight.
The play opens with line: “When was the last time your feet were truly happy?” This sets the perfect tone for this short-term quest. It suggests that feet seek not only comfort but also aesthetic satisfaction before they can become “truly happy”. The Richard Chua- E. Seah rendition of Perfect Shoe used that line to close the piece as well. (Verena Tay’s prescribed ending is “At least my feet were in heaven for a few hours.”) by repeating the line, the all-male team pulled the audience back into a connection with this human need to seek this comfort, this aesthetic satisfaction.
The Chua-Seah version, which was performed on the first evening, looked at the piece through a most interesting lens: a transsexual focused on fashion, especially shoes. It worked beautifully, as we could well imagine a man who chose to become a woman obsessed with finding the ‘perfect show’ to ground him as ‘the perfect woman’. A number of the monologues other themes also took on a heightened importance from this perspective: his/her troubled relationship with other family members, her/his sharp competitiveness with other women, the problems of clothing as a child, and sharing certain articles with his younger sister. Even the large size of the heroine’s feet becomes quite logical in this take, since the feet are not the parts that get cut in most sex-change surgery.
Seah handled the role of the transsexual intent on becoming more-woman-than-woman beautifully. He proved especially good as spitting out “bitch” at various volumes. (This soubriquet was not in Tay’s original text, but it suited the demeanour of the character created here.) Plus, when he finally grabbed his cherished pair of black pumps, Seah flashed a carnivorous grin similar to Jack Nicholson’s in the Kubrick film The Shining.
As a director, Richard Chua likes to use projections; perhaps he likes it too much. Out of five used in this show, the first and last projections (wherein we saw shots of E. Seah out of drag) were effective and fitting, while the other three were just there for the effect (including a collage of posters for Private Parts). On the other hand, some of Chua’s directorial strategies, such as the hairspray can shooting foam at the end was good, and it was also good to have it go on for longer than one would have expected it.
This version of The Perfect Shoe was so fresh and entertaining that Verena Tay should really consider adding to the text that this character is preferably to be played as a transsexual.
Fortunately, we did get to see this piece in the hands of women. The Sonny Lim-Elizabeth de Roza version of A Perfect Shoe was also engaging, though not as much as the transsexual take. As the woman (and here, clearly all woman) going after the shoe to save her soul (or sole), de Roza moved more energetically, almost gymnastically. She sweated where Seah was cool as a cucumber. And while she made some occasional slips in delivering the text, she was so energetic that she always got the point across. Unlike Seah, de Roza actually acted out the types of shoes she rejected, giving each one a near personality unto itself. This added a dimension to the narrative that fit the character created in her version.
However, it was not all spinning energy in this edition. De Roza effectively modulated her performance at key parts in the narrative. For instance, when she approached that one perfect pair, she moved reverently, as if approaching a truly precious object. And when she discarded the damaged footwear at the end of the piece, it became a little tragedy, as if the loss of the shoes was tantamount to a loss of some small life. And this playlet’s closing line, “At least for a few hours, my feet were in heaven.”, was delivered in a tone befitting one of Dante’s damned who had been granted, briefly, a glimpse of Paradise.
If the Ferlin Jayatissa-Jocelyn Chua collaboration was clearly the least appealing of the three versions of Perfect Shoe, it would seem that Chua’s youth and limited experience were largely to blame. (Though there were some technical problems here as well; to wit, the music could have faded in and out better than it did.) Not that they failed to give it all their best; the problem here was that actress and director worked too hard to make the text work.
Chua gave an acting-class mime rendition of the story, with some of the simplest and least satisfying acting-class tricks brought in - even going to the point of retching when she points out that her feet are too big. There was also a martial-arts attack by the narrator’s sister in this take. And when the text calls for the Young Woman to mentally fend off other customers who might snatch her dream shoes, Chua went for the whole arsenal of acting-school tricks, including wielding M-16 and becoming a samurai warrior whose vigour and body count would have done honour to an early Kurosawa film. By way of contrast, the ways in which de Roza and, even more so, Seah handled these moments with the torments on their faces showed how this could be done much better.
It was as if the director and the actor did not trust the text enough, or trust the actor’s handling of the text to let the words and the actor’s basic weapons (which do not include samurai or assault rifles) define the character. But the Chua-Seah team had proven how well Tay’s text can work when fully absorbed into a credible character.
The final verdict on Jocelyn’s Chua’s Perfect Shoe is that the character was simply not credible all the way through. The sad corollary here is that in Chua’s best moments as this hapless quester for the perfect show (The deeply expressive look in her eyes when she faces her sister’s anger, for instance, or when she threw the broken shoes away), we do not feel for her as much as we should have because the character has lost our trust.
If The Perfect Shoe proved the strongest of the three texts in this experiment, Jiving With Java was clearly the weakest.
Jiving is basically a pedestrian rant against all the main, predictable irritants in the Singapore daily grind. Now there’s nothing wrong with rants in theatre, it is just that they have to be very good to come off as more than just…well, rants. Unfortunately, Tay’s attempt here falls rather short of very good.
The core problem is that Jiving With Java’s terrain is one already too well-travelled by film, theatre, prose fiction, even humour-column journalism: the frustrations of the modern office, the frustrations of getting there in the morning, and frustrations with the people who run those offices.
Does Verena Tay serve up any new insights into these situations and people? Not really. Her guide through this terrain, Janet, takes the same path already well-laid by countless commentators before her. (Actually, Janet’s rant is interspersed with blips of comment and orders from her overbearing boss, Margaret. But Margaret’s brief appearances were mainly to serve as a foil to the beleaguered Janet.)
Not only do the insights and complaints here seem drably second-hand, but of the three pieces in the show, this is also the one in which the character’s voice is least authentic. At points, Janet’s grousing sounds like a Dave Barry piece, though nowhere near as sharp or clever as Barry usually is; and I stress ‘nowhere’.
And sharpness was clearly called for here because of the shop-worn nature of the subject. Janet dubs her officious boss “Miss Rich Mercedes S-Class.” How bland a blast. Or maybe this is just to show the lack of imagination of the central character, which would be a miscalculation on the part of the author.
And while certain fresh topics, specific to the Singaporean context, offered fine opportunities for flights of comic imagination, Tay never even got off the ground with them. A perfect example: In discussing morning bus rides in the Lion City, Tay sets her sights on TV Mobile, whereby passengers are subjected to unrequested TV programs, sometimes at near-painful volumes. Tay’s attack on this most inviting target amounted to only the following: “TV’s that blare news and more news, stupid ads or canned laughter from sterile comedies” and “you can’t get a moment’s peace on a bus anymore! Why can’t we go back to the days of TV-less.”
And that is the totality of Tay’s critique. What a feast of skewered tripe and kitsch a skilled satirist could have served up from this obtrusive phenomenon of TV on wheels. Sadly, in Jiving, what could have been a hilarious interlude came off a shoulder-shrugging exercise in stating the all-too obvious.
All too few were the solid wingers, such as the scene with a taxi driver whose English is so sub-functional that Janet is forced to quasi-communicate with him in her ‘half-past-six Mandarin” on the morning drive to work.
So here we had a somewhat slack tightrope which presented serious challenges for the three directors and performers. Regrettably none of them were really able to score a success with it.
Under Ferlin Jayatissa’s direction, Jiving with Java opened in a stylised manner with the young Janet (played here by Jocelyn Chua) coming on in mannered way and attending to things in a mannered fashion.
Jocelyn Chua, slipping into the skin of the boss, uttered the last word in the line “Janet - graphic - good” in a very good, catty manner. However, in general, Chua seems rather too young for this character. She is much more appropriate, and credible, as the younger woman, Janet. She also performs better in this skin, even giving Janet a slight lisp that humanises this working stiff even more. (This lisp comes out especially when she intones ‘Mercedes’ in an almost Castilian manner.)
And there was one very bad decision in this rendering that foreshadowed the weakest moments in Jocelyn Chua’s Perfect Shoe. At the end, Janet does not just throw the job back in Margaret’s face (metaphorically), but stabs her martinet of a boss, slowly, deliberately, before walking out. Now whether this was meant was a literal homicide as revenge for Margaret’s treatment of her or just a deep-seated wish of Janet’s made concrete for us, it detracted from the playlet’s ending rather than adding to it.
Elizabeth de Roza again went the high-energy route in tackling Jiving With Java. (Though, curiously, she was somewhat languorous when confessing that she had just downed four coffees in her first hour at work.) And we are talking high energy here: this Janet seemed to approach orgasm when describing the glories of the Himalayas. (Sigmund Freud would certainly have been pleased with that connection.)
In fact, at her least convincing moments, de Roza seemed about to bust. She also reminded us of her dance background by incorporating choreography into this edition of Jiving, which seemed extraneous but did help distract us from the weakness of the text.
This Janet was a slightly older model, which could have lent some poignancy to her status in the company. But this was not pursued, and the text did not invite much exploration of the theme. Instead, de Roza played Janet as a high-octane graphic designer on the rise, her eye makeup lending her a sultry Cleopatra look which made her walking out on the job more inevitable than sacrificial.
This Lim-de Roza rendition also threw in bits of energetic shtick. At one point, the actress used an upside-down chair to indicate her car. However, at times, her rendition leaned a bit too much on the literal, as when she jutted out her butt to underscore one of her exclamations: “My ass!” Again, the actress and the director were obviously doing all they could to resuscitate a feeble text, but most of their strategies only pointed out its basic weakness.
As noted above, the all-male version of Perfect Shoe was indisputably one of the highlights of the entire experiment. However, nowhere else did the Richard Chua-E. Seah collaboration suit Tay’s texts so well. In fact, their take on Jiving With Java should have been billed as a theatre vignette by Chua and Seah, based very vaguely on an idea by Verena Tay. It was, quite plainly, a major deconstruction of the original text, with little to relate it to its source.
In this version, Seah sat in a kind of illuminated cubicle at the rear of the set, putting on make-up and costume for a Chinese opera as truncated portions of the text, pre-recorded, were played offstage. These were interspersed with recordings of the rehearsal process where Chua and Seah were beginning to deconstruct the text. Only rarely did Seah in his cubicle even react to the text as it was being recited. Admittedly, some of the comments of director and actor were funnier than anything in the original. (Best example: Seah was unsure what the Mercedes S-class was and ingenuously asked if that is the one that looks like a coffin.)
But his willful approach was not without its small rewards. For instance, at the end of the piece, Seah, now fully made up and costumed, emerged with a look of near disappointment that gripped at our hearts, then proceeded to pick up a briefcase - the latter gesture making a nod to Tay’s office theme, suggesting that our day jobs are themselves merely performances in heavy makeup and costume. But the author’s work had disappeared somewhere in between.
But the fact that all three versions of Jiving strained to make the piece work and all failed to a greater or lesser degree should tell us something about the work. And what it tells us is that it is, indeed, the weakest of the three in this package.
The monologue that allowed this experiment to chalk up the most success across the board was the unprepossessing Good Girls Don’t Wait. Here, the differing ages and personalities of the three performers allowed varying facets of the work to shine, proving the play’s depth and quality in a way a single version could not have. (My own appreciation for the work grew continuously over the three nights.)
This playlet is not as polished a gem as The Perfect Shoe. For one thing, it goes on a bit too long, and there are points where the playwright starts clutching at straws trying to keep our interest as the narrative flags.
A good example of this straw-clutching comes when the narrator, Wendy is suddenly thrown into a panic that the lunchbox she finds on a park bench holds a bomb. Actually, it is a cupcake and single candle for Wendy’s birthday, which she soon discovers. Tay should rethink this part of the text to make it both more believable and fit it into the flow better.
But for the most part, Tay offers an interesting look at a woman who is torn between what she knows is true and what she wants desperately to be true. The writing is not as strong as in Perfect Shoe, but the emotional trajectory of this sad character keeps us engaged through most of her journey.
On opening night, Elizabeth de Roza and Sonny Lim took on this work, and they dealt with it in a manner that employed Beckettian bits and even some Eastern European theorist concepts. (Her wavy-haired wig could be seen as both a Beckettian touch and an Eastern European actor-as-clown conceit.)
This Good Girls started out with a strong visual correlative to what was to follow: boxes of light defining the space as well as indicating the psychological set of the speaker, Wendy. Also, the floor was sprinkled with crumpled pieces of paper, following the text wherein Wendy bemoans the increasing clutter one sees in public places here in ‘squeaky-clean’ Singapore. But this litter was arranged in rows that kept the visual motif intact. Kudos to the stage crew, who accomplished this in pitch dark.
For her part, de Roza gave Wendy a slight Singaporean accent, defining her as a woman moving between several jostling worlds in Singapore society. More importantly, she gave her strongest performance of the three nights, imbuing Wendy with a fragile, bartered sensibility that made her an easy target for men like her reportedly swinish boyfriend.
De Roza’s age (she’s a thirty-something) also lent the character a tart poignancy. This Good Girls let us know that Wendy stuck to her unreliable, irascible boyfriend because she does not see many alternatives coming down the pike. This turned her mother’s thoughtless “No wonder no on else wants you..” into a particularly jagged barb. And when, near the end, the mother threatens Wendy with having to choosing between continuing with the boyfriend and remaining at home, the threat took on a much darker tone.
However, the age of this Wendy also rendered her painfully naïve, sometimes to a point that tested our credulity. But the poignancy was the key element that finally won us over. This allowed for very moving moments, such as when Wendy, caught in a reverie over what her relationship could be, does a little dance with herself. As she turns in a tight circle, she puts her hand to her cheek, a proxy to that of her boyfriend who has failed to turn up on this, her birthday of all days.
Jocelyn Chua’s Wendy was, logically enough, a much younger woman, one still straddling the fantasy period of girlhood. In Chua’s hands, Wendy’s naïveté became not only believable but even a clear part of the character’s emotional baggage. Chua also made Wendy’s girlish enthusiasm work nicely. When Chua’s Wendy repeats her mother’s nagging “Someone who’s always late or never shows up can’t be trusted.”, we feel that the young lady is just beginning learning this from sad experience. With de Roza, we asked, “What, she’s just discovering this? How pathetic.”
Like de Roza, Chua delivered a number of key lines with a telling tentativeness. But whereas de Roza’s tentative tone had a hint of desperation to it, Chua’s more often conveyed adolescent hopefulness. And when Chua fantasised about the boyfriend’s arranging a huge electric sign to suddenly “Happy birthday, Wendy!”, her bubbling girlish enthusiasm made the bit work perfectly. A character like Chua’s Wendy would definitely sum up something like this to lift her sagging spirits.
The Richard Chua-E.Seah team was more loyal to the original text than to Jiving, though they still put their distinctive mark on this Good Girls. A very obvious distinction is that there was no visual attempt to make us believe this was a woman rather than an effeminate man. For another thing, the team added two small dolls which Seah-as-Wendy brought out with him and to which he often addressed his monologue.
Seah also brought out a wooden tray with an alarm clock and a box, which contained the birthday cake and candle. The character’s bringing on the latter raised some awkward questions. For instance, Wendy’s discovery of this box now made no sense unless we are to assume that Wendy is thoroughly deranged and the boyfriend never left that box at all. Indeed, the boyfriend probably does not even exist at all in this reading.
With such problems to overcome, it would take a very skilled actor to make the piece work. Fortunately, E. Seah again proved himself to be just that - a most skilled actor. His Wendy kept us with him every sad step of the way, just as Elizabeth de Roza and Jocelyn Chua had done on the first two nights. Indeed, I found the ending in this version of Good Girls to be the most poignant of the three as Seah took us to a place where hope snuggles up against despair in order to survive at all.
The last line of the piece is a refrain that also opened the monologue, “What is the time, Mr Wolf?” This chant, from a popular Singaporean children’s game, can have multiple echoes, depending on the character reciting it. Over the three evenings, it came in three very different ways, offering hope, confusion or aching despair. The three performers took this simple phrase and turned it into a final twist of the key which unlocked the heart of their characters. Each did a splendid job of it and brought the piece to a fine conclusion by doing so.
Around the time this show was running, commercials on MediaCorps television touted their stage production of Private Parts as ‘the most heavily anticipated theatre revival in history’. Even allowing for the tug of marketing hype, that is probably one of the most exaggerated claims in the history of Singapore TV. Meanwhile, what The Substation did in carrying out this bold and time-consuming experiment was, hype-free, the most interesting bit of theatre in Singapore over the last quarter.
Praise is owed to three brave and inventive directors; three daring, energetic and talented performers (even if the youngest of the three definitely needs to get more experience under her belt); to Verena Tay for having the vision to put together this evening; and to The Substation for having the courage and fortitude to stage it. With a project such as this, The Substation lives up to its mandate to be a home for the arts.QLRS Vol. 4 No. 1 Oct 2004