Love Is All You Knead
Matters of the heart get various treatments on local stages
By Richard Lord
February is, of course, that month with Valentine’s Day smack dab in the middle; it’s also the month Singapore kicked off its second annual ‘Romancing Singapore’ program. Perhaps not coincidentally, two of Singapore’s more renowned groups chose this month to open shows dealing with the eternal theme of love, while a third renowned Singapore company followed with the likewise a few days into March.
The marketing strategies were clear, and commendable. (Don’t ever knock theatre companies playing on seasons or celebrations to draw in more audience.) What these three shows proved is not that love draws audiences, but that love is quite difficult to portray well on stage. The reason would seem to be that love between two individuals - by its nature something intimate and exclusive/restricted - does not fit easily into the demands of such a public forum as theatre. Even film offers a much more intimate dealing with its subjects, and thus handles love themes fairly well.
Such Sweet Sorrow bills itself as a “remix of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet“. Other than the fact that Sorrow takes up the travails of a three pairs of lovers with major problems, sprinkles its main text incongruously with quotes from Will’s early evergreen, and ends with a somewhat tedious discussion of Shakespeare’s work, this claim is somewhat disingenuous. Could it be that TNS was using this hook as a marketing ploy to pull in more audience to/fill more seats at the massive Victoria Theatre, hijacking the highly marketable cachet of Shakespeare and what is probably his most marketable product?
Having said that, Such Sweet Sorrow was TNS’ most accomplished piece of theatre in quite a while - for the first two-thirds of the evening. (Of that unfortunate final third, more will be said shortly.)
Meanwhile, the largest portion of Such Sweet Sorrow is a delectable salmagundi of lyricism, stylised Theatre of Cruelty, minimalist folk drama, music, dance and mime. It’s quite a hard task to blend all these things well, and Haresh Sharma’s accomplished text set a real challenge for director Sean Tobin and his cast to make the whole thing work as a whole. But Tobin was more than equal to this challenge and his strong/rock-solid cast assured success for the final rendition of the whole.
The show melds the stories of three sets of lovers, based more of less loosely on true stories out of Singapore’s recent history, moving in and out of each story like mists swirling in the narrative.
The first couple consists of a Thai construction worker and his Indonesian girlfriend, later wife. The second pair is made up of the slimy, sadistic womaniser and even more sadistic murderer, Adrian Lim, and his accomplice-wife. The third story involves sibling rather than romantic love: this one looks at a pair of adult twins, conjoined at the head, who yearn to look at each other face-to-face for the first time in their lives
This last pair is based on the Iranian Ladan and Laleh Bijani sisters, who underwent surgery here last year in order to separate them. The surgery proved unsuccessful and both twins died within 24 hours of the failed operation. When I read the TNS press release about this pair, I winced, expecting a cruel exercise in bad taste, exploiting this small tragedy to make some tittering theatre. My fears seemed to be valid when an early appearance of Sorrow’s conjoined twins had them engaged in a children’s game of catch-me-if-you-can.
Fortunately, what we ultimately got was a sensitive, well-delivered portrayal of two special individuals intrinsically linked (literally, of course) who seek one small but ultimately unattainable degree of separation.
The episodes with the twins start out with some comic gestures, which - although they work as near-slapstick - had me worried about what was to come. However, the next time Sharma’s text looked in on the twins, the mood had lifted to an entirely different plane. Now the time is post-operation, and both twins have entered the afterlife. Sharma’s text was lyrical. Balanced and moving, giving voice to two who had paid the ultimate price for gambling that they might be able to beat the odds and enjoy life apart. It helped that both Beatrice Chia and Mark Richmond played the parts of the twins so sensitively and strongly.
The second pair of star-crossed lovers, two lower-rung immigrant workers in Singapore, was not quite as successful, though these lovers were also played well, by Annabelle Francis and Sheikh Haikel. This couple comprises an Indonesian maid and a Thai construction worker. There are scores of horror stories about the mistreatment of both of these groups here in Singapore, and Such Sweet Sorrow humanised the accounts by showing the Thai and Indonesian falling in love, despite the economic and social barricades in their way.
In its best moments, the treatment of this relationship worked because of the way it showed the love blossoming, from initial hesitance to full fruition, finally ending in tragedy. However, Sharma’s writing powers were not as sure here as with the conjoined twins, and the bit where the construction worker recites Shakespeare to his lady fair rang decidedly false.
The sections dealing with the twisted relationship between Adrian Lim and his wife were one are where the actors and director Tobin were clearly more in the fore than was playwright Sharma. The stylised staging of their sordid, sadistic crimes created a visual poetry that saved these episodes from the obvious pitfalls of sensationalism. And once again, the performances by Sim Pern Yiau and Jean Ng and Mr and Mrs Serial Killer were strong and winning.
Also effective was Peter Sau in his roles as emcee, in various incarnations, from a campy Asian version of a Catholic priest to a campy female nurse. Although a few of the latter’s jokes, made one say “ouch” after an initial laugh, they did fit the persona of this low-brow nurse. (One example of the bad humour: She reminds us that during his exploits, Adrian Lim drank urine and human blood. “Hello - wasn’t there a 7-11 near you?” Okay, I laughed: and then I quickly jotted down my note to take them to task for the joke.)
The whole presentation was helped immensely by a series of stylised dance pieces which punctuated and enhanced many of the scenes. The quartet of dancers was almost never obtrusive, and added something in almost every one of their appearances.
All of this material was well-edited, well-paced and went on no longer than it needed to. Which brought this section to just under an hour’s playing time. There were then two sections to come to fill the evening out to around 90 minutes. In the first, we got a backstage scene where director Tobin was calling out instructions to the stage crew and cast, getting feedback where needed.
This short section was studded with bits of good shop humour, especially appealing for those who have worked in theatre. However, its relationship to the splendid show that went before it was tangential at best. (Actually, it might have worked better if it had opened up the show.)
The last, completely superfluous section featured the cast sitting around being questioned about and reflecting on their views of love and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Thankfully, this section was well-staged with the seated cast spread around the stage as the emcee figure asked questions. This type of deconstruction dirge to the mesmerising first part of the show would have been better if it had so closely resembled a peek into a Shakespeare 101 course at a much less than prestigious university. As it was, the section seemed completely tacked on to what had come before it. It’s hard to shake the suspicion that the main reason for the presence of these two sections was the company’s fear that the audience would have walked out feeling a little cheated. Cheated that had they shelled out good money, then decked themselves out nicely for the venerable Victoria Theatre venue and only received an hour’s theatre for their efforts. - no matter how fascinating and well-done that hour of theatre was.
Actually, the February production of Singapore’s other theatre mainstay, TheatreWorks, was more akin to the Bard’s Romeo and Juliet than the TNS turn.
A Marriage of Inconvenience is the first play to come out of/emerge from the TheatreWorks Writers’ Lab as a full-length production in close to a decade. The programme notes tell us that the author has churned the script through “many, many revisions”. Unfortunately, the play still needs a good deal of work before it’s ready for prime time.
The play tells the tale of a couple bravely pursuing love amidst a tangle of major difficulties. Sabrina Wong is a Chinese-Singaporean from a well-to-do family, a successful physician with a bad track record on relationships. Gabriel is a Filipino, male nurse at the hospital where Sabrina works and where their own romance incubated.
Moreover, Sabrina’s parents are prejudiced, highly social conscious folks who actually preach about marrying down and marrying up. Sabrina and her parents also employ a Filipina maid, whom they don’t really appreciate. (That is a nice way of saying they look down upon her.). As if that weren‘t enough to discourage the faint of heart, the casting here adds one further obstacle to Gabriel and Sabrina’s relationship: the gal is noticeably taller than the guy.
The conflicts are pre-programmed, and the play proceeds to hit us with these conflicts one after the other, and then, of course, to overcome them all. Playwright Ng Swee San strength lies in nicely setting up these conflicts and showing how they affect the two lovers and those closest to them and how the pair work out these conflicts in a compelling way. Ng’s presentation of the problems is fairly complex and honest. As opposed to the programme notes by the director wherein he twice spouts this nonsense about unconditional love beating all odds (in his final sentence, this love takes on the additional burden of being ‘boundless’), the playwright herself understands that human love, especially that love with a romantic component, always involves conditions. Further, those conditions are often reworked, fortified or abandoned as a love relationship develops. That’s what we see in this play’s best moments.
Unfortunately, the work packs a plethora of bad moments to counter the salutary effects of those best bits. First of all, the writing could certainly have been a good deal sharper. The language is too often functional rather than inspirational. Even the play’s best jokes are non-memorable, while the text is mined with weak gags. (The mother, a TV addict, asks the couple a crucial question and when Gabriel replies, she asks if that’s his final answer, if he doesn’t want to use one of his lifelines. Later, she informs her husband that he has lost a major disagreement by proudly declaring, “The tribe has spoken.”)
In too many ways, A Marriage of Inconvenience works itself out as a ménage of contrivances. The fairly knotted plot depends on a series of twists that stretch our credibility, sometimes to the breaking point. For instance, Gabriel had earlier moonlighted as a social escort, a fact that father Wong discovers when he puts a private detective on his wannabe son-in-law’s tail. Okay, that’s mildly believable, but less so is the father’s assertion that if Gabriel doesn’t leave town quickly on his own volition, he’ll have his work permit cancelled and have the young man summarily deported. (Despite what some foreign readers might believe, Singapore is a place where the rule of law, with legal appeals, is well-established. No small-time businessman such as Mr Wong would be able to wield that sort of power.)
While Ng does not shy away from melodramatic elements in the script, she could have more profitably upped the ante on the Filipinos’ sense of being viewed as inferiors by the locals. For instance, when Gabriel’s protective cousin Louisa lashes out at what she perceives as Sabrina’s residual/muted racism, the attack could have been more pointed, just as the angry defence Sabrina mounts could have been more quilled. For that matter, it would have helped the drama here if Gabriel’s own nagging doubts about Sabrina’s feelings had been sharper.
If Inconvenience too often thrashed along in choppy waters for much of its length, when it moved into its concluding scene, the wedding scene, it was like watching the Titanic plow into the iceberg.
This Grand Guignol finale includes several cast members handing out song sheets and drawing the audience into a singalong; the couple arriving in full saccharine wrap; dad still recalcitrant, making one last-ditch effort to sabotage the relationship and then roping in an amusing minor character form the early part of the show for an incredible reappearance.
This is a cleaning lady, played reasonably well by Peggy Ferroa, who is called upon to perform the marriage ceremony when the Catholic priest gets unavoidably delayed. Fortunately, this cleaning lady is probably the only cleaning lady n all Singapore to be officially certified to perform marriages. So she does the duties. They even manage to work in another cheap joke to explain this event: “In Singapore, the government is more powerful than God.” Oh, please.
(Reminds me of my early university days when some of us tried to convince our latest flames that the man who serviced the motel Coke machines was empowered by the state to perform non-licensed marriages.)
For the record, Catholic nuptials are not considered valid without a priest as celebrant. It is totally inconceivable that any priest would instruct the church cleaning lady to perform the ceremony - even one with a license to legally bind couples. After all, no Catholic parish in Singapore that I know of has only one padre, and in such a traffic emergency, another priest in that parish would certainly have been pressed into service.
Fittingly, this scene plays out to the strains of ‘Love Is In The Air‘, one of the most egregious saccharine confections ever to masquerade as a love song.
As director Jeffrey Tan amply demonstrates in his long, poorly written and largely fatuous programme notes, language is not his strong suit, nor is a strong grasp of the intricacies and difficulties of human relationships. He, therefore, was probably not the best person to bring out the full play of Ng Swee San’s script or to advise her on what still needed to be strengthened or to be dropped.
What Tan does well is handle the traffic on stage, to keep things paced nicely, and to find a balance to the scenes. But did he counsel his actors on not stepping on laughs? (At least a few of them seem to have mastered this important sensitivity to the audience, and the ones who don’t may have ignored their instructions.)
The acting in A Marriage of Inconvenience was as uneven as the script. The best of the lot was Bart Guignona as Gabriel. This guy knows what acting is all about. He demonstrated fine comic timing, was supportive of the other characters and handled the scenes serious moments most convincingly. Had Guignona not been in this cast, I suspect my impressions of the show would have been harsher.
As opposed to Guignona, Corinne Adrienne Tan does not really have a pronounced gift for light comedy, but she is good at drama and romance under trial. Her soulful looks and sense of internal turmoil served these moments well. As Sabrina is not essential to the play’s comedy but her romance is crucial, Tan proved a somewhat good choice for the role.
I don’t care to sound as if I’m thumping the drum for Filipino theatre, but it is true that the strongest supporting performances came from the three Filipino support characters. (One of whom, interestingly, was played by a Singaporean Eurasian.) Gloria Sicam was quite strong as Gabriel’s cousin Louisa, though she was just a tad too shrill at points. Lou Meanings carried off the role of the Filipino maid quite nicely, and Bridget Therése was convincing as the effusive family friend, Conchita. (It would seem that Sabrina’s parents don’t mind having a Filipino as a close friend - they just don’t want one marrying their daughter or inserting a little humanity into the maid’s role.)
The two actors plucked for the parts of Sabrina’s parents were pretty bad. Koh Chieng Mun is a veteran of Singaporean sitcoms, a fact the audience graciously acknowledged on her first entrance. She showed here that she has mastered the acting style of the typical Singapore sitcom: horribly exaggerated, mugging as often as she can, and working to scuttle any well-turned funny line via a faulty intonation.
Interestingly, Koh was not bad in the more serious moments. Perhaps it was just that when the play required Mrs. Wong to get serious that Koh was able to bring out her narrow acting abilities. When the script called for comedy, she fell back on what she usually does for TV. As Mr Wong, Lee Weng Kee was good neither with the comedy nor the serious parts of this play.
Neither the playwright nor the cast were well served by the operation of lights in this production. While this may reflect the director’s clipped strategy, I suspect that it was rather the fault of a too technical lighting technician. You what I’m talking about - the type with an itchy fade-button finger who hears a cue line and then brings the lights down quickly, clipping the scene right there. Sad: Ng Swee San has a pronounced skill for bringing a scene to a strong emotional pitch as it is finishing, and some of the richest elements would probably have been how the characters react to the last thing said. This is an important component of good play writing and good stagecraft: here, it mostly got sheared off by precipitant/too-quick fades. The one key instance when the technician allowed a scene to really play out to its finish, after Gabriel sharply admonishes his cousin Louisa, proved this well: Louisa’s speechless look was the most eloquent point in that particular scene.
Admittedly, the audience I was with enjoyed this play much more than I did. They laughed loudly at many of the jokes where I and several others around me merely cringed. I suspect these were people nurtured on local product sitcoms who think that this is good comedy. It’s not; it’s atrociously bad, in fact.
Ng Swee San has shown too much talent here and elsewhere to be satisfied with playing to this kind of sensibility. If she wants to make this play really succeed, she has got to go back to that drawing board for some more hard work.
While TheatreWorks was featuring a work by a Singaporean with a strong Filipino element, the Toy Factory was putting up a show by a Filipino playwright to which the Factory had given a nice Singaporean spin. With this production of Jam, the Toy Factory again showed its propensity to they could mount an interesting, able show out of seriously flawed material.
Jam is a collection piece by Tony Perez, 10 playlets or sketches strung together along a highway sometimes in the Philippines that is meant to somehow tie all the pieces together. Somehow.
Even if the links between the decade of plays was tenuous, this would not be a significant flaw - perhaps no flaw at all if the ten somewhat discreet pieces offered more than they do. The problem is, most of them don’t offer very much at all.
The recurring theme, other than travel along this unnamed highway (an earlier version of this show did give it a name - New Diversion Road - and made that the title of the show), was the loss of love. Quite often, this love was lost because of one partner’s (usually the man‘s) infidelity. In the most engaging pieces, the loss occurs when a songwriter turns away form his star songstress out of love for another woman and then the impending death of that woman, now his wife.
Playwright Perez’s strategy of construction for this show was faulty right out of the blocks in that he opened with one of the weakest of his ten pieces. This opener finds a married couple driving along the highway, engaged in a cool, strangely dispassionate discussion of the husband’s infidelity and how this disturbs the terms of the marriage contract they’ve entered into. The play’s cool set-up suggested an emotional bomb planted somewhere in the relationship, just waiting to go off. But it never did, and the piece ended as something of a dud.
The same could be said of many of the other pieces. Perez is more successful in this enterprise when he serves up comic sketches, all over the top and just around the curve from credibility. These include a pair of rockers who seemed as if they would be more at home on wheel-knocking motorcycles than in a car; a smile-at-all-costs couple pursuing an impossible line on marital bliss - even in the face of infidelity - during a driving lesson; and a comfortably middle-class couple trying to coolly maintain the veneer of respectable comportment while inflicting a spiraling series of cruelties and indignities on each other. This last sketch has no dialogue until the very end; what works is the clever visual humour as the playwright (and perhaps the Toy Factory team) concocts one vicious indignity after another. Sadly, when that precious little bit of dialogue is patched on at the end, it adds no value whatsoever to what had proceeded it: the man finally asks the woman what’s bothering her, and she spits out a terse, poison-laced reply: “Two-timer”. Is that all? How cheap a way to abruptly end a quite funny sketch.
This closer needed something more along the lines of the dialogue in the rocker sketch. As their mutual contempt quickly percolates, the couple trade scathing insults. First he insists that if he were Adam and she Eve, he “would go with the snake”. She counters with the poke that if she were Snow White and he Prince Charming, she’d fuck Dopey. Now that’s what we need more of in this world - a couple that can communicate honestly.
Perez’s also attempts to troll the waters of more serious sketches, and these are at best interesting and mildly engaging. One finds two academics talking about their mutual adulterous relationships in a composed, academic manner before they close out a mutual suicide pact. (The mantra of this couple is mind over feelings.)
Jam ends on its too most serious playlets, the two which also claim the highest emotional pitch. In the first of these, that songwriter tells the highly talented singer who has recorded many of his songs that he’s decided to marry another woman, even though he knows that the singer has always not too secretly wanted him for her own.
In the show’s last piece we again see the composer on a drive, this time with that wife he married. Now we learn that she is suffering from a fatal illness with little time left. For some strange reason, the couple choose this car trip as the most suitable venue for a full discussion of the wife’s impending demise and her wish that he marry again soon after that demise. And the woman she wants him to marry is none other than her friend, the female singer from the previous playlet.
Although the dialogue in these three sketches are all competently written, they never achieve the kind of emotional charge that Perez obviously intended to give them. What emotional power these three achieved came from what the two actors gave to the pieces. This was especially true in the last playlet when the pain of the wife’s impending death and the power of their deep but flawed love to transcend this pain was apparent in both Ang and Wong. (Even if Wong emotes a little too vigorously with those pliable features of his.)
Perez nibbles vigorously at the edges of theme of male-female relationships. The result, at its best, yields the energetic and rather funny pieces that make up the best parts of the evening. But even at their best, the playlets in Jam seem second-hand, borrowed, wildly imagined not felt. He just can’t get under the skin of these characters and give us any new insights about male-female relationships.
Again it was left to the two performers in this production, Chermaine Ang and Phin Wong, along with their director, Nelson Chia, to fill in many of the blanks.
The team goes pretty far to make Perez’s sketches work - even as far as Bollywood, which is the treatment they gave to the driving lesson sketch. Throughout the evening, the actors pumped energy and emotional octane into the pieces, no matter how flimsy.
Chermaine Ang rushed her lines a bit in the first sketch, which did not fit with the Pinteresque tone of the piece. Come to think of it, this particular sketch reminded me of some of Pinter’s very early sketches, including one called Night. Unfortunately, Perez commands none of the skill in constructing suggestive dialogue or mining the rugged subterranean layers of relationships that Pinter has. Hence, this piece of his is just plain flat.
But after that initial sketch, Ang got stronger and again showed the impressive acting range she commands. Ang quickly slipped into a new persona, a new temperament as easily as she slipped into the new costume.
Phin Wong was close behind Ang in his varied performances here. And we should give Wong a special nod of appreciation here as he had to step into the show shortly before it opened.
Director Chia kept everything moving along at an appropriate tempo here and evidently worked tightly with his actors at getting the most out of Perez’s thinly drawn characters. He also apparently worked to put as much visual pump into the sketches as he could. The sketch with the hyper, near-violent rocker couple opens in strobe light, for instance, setting the in-your-face tone of this piece.
Chia was also responsible for the ‘set’, which consisted mainly of a makeshift auto with wicker baskets for wheels, a pants hanger for rear-view mirror, a calendar and a convenient roll of toilet paper on the dash. Done up in a spray of bright colours, it recalls those buses one often sees in the Philippines. It was an inspired decision, this car-set.
Credit is also due to Beatrice Chia for the array of expressive costumes she assembled. (That lady does turn up in many places and many capacities, doesn’t she?) I especially liked the outrageous ensembles of the second piece where the man sports a loud batik, and the lady a faux-tiger skin jacket. This was a perfect fashion statement for this weird couple.
And this first quarter of the year closed out with yet another play about love - Threesome, a slightly interesting piece by an ad hoc theatre troupe headed up by Lionel Chok, who wrote and apparently also directed this show. (Neither the programme nor the publicity brochure mention any director. They may explain some of the slipshod staging we saw here.)
Threesome is actually Chok’s adaptation of a film by Kevin Smith, Chasing Amy. This film involved a two-man team of ace cartoonists suddenly threatened when one of the two falls head over heels in love with another cartoonist, a young woman who happens to be involved in a hot lesbian relationship. The two appear made for each other in every way but the sexual, and the tensions that develop between the fated members of this triangle pull all three of them apart.
The structure and plot of Chasing Amy is somewhat messy. (Actually, messiness seems to be the signature of most Kevin Smith films.) In transposing this story from the American Northeast to Singapore, Lionel Chok in fact tightens things up a bit, though many of his unlikely plot developments come from the original source.
Chok also makes the stew of emotions a little by turning the triangle into a quadrangle, with a gay male friend of the smitten cartoonist, Danny. This gay friend, Roy, in turn stokes the homophobic impulses of Danny’s partner Steve. As contrivance will have it, Roy and Steve end up as the play’s happiest couple at its conclusion, with poor Danny left out in the wilderness of unrealised desires and ambitions.
Like Ng Swee San’s Marriage of Inconvenience, Lionel Chok’s look at the difficulties of love needs a good deal of work, though it has a promising start here. For instance, though he does strike a number of right (and funny chords) with lines like Danny’s revelation that “Pam and I, we shared a moment”, much of the dialogue remains limp. Chok has to put more grit and fire in some of his confrontational moments. And it wouldn’t hurt this play at all if there were some more genuinely lines.
Chok, who has a background in TV and film production, did make good use of video in this production. It was nice to see video supplements actually adding to the story in a persuasive way rather then being spot-checked in almost as if they were a duty. In fact, in reworking this piece, Chok might want to consider turning it into a screenplay, as that would solve many of the script’s current problems. Also, Chok’s instincts still seem to be more along the lines of film: a number of times it struck me that certain scenes would have worked better on film than on stage.
This production might also have worked better with a stronger cast. Everyone here evidenced some talent, but it was undeniable that each of these actors needs a fair amount more work before they’re at a professional level. A besetting sin for the entire cast (except for Jeremy Samuel) was a tendency to rush lines - especially in following up on other actor’s lines.
The best performance here belonged to Timothy Nga as Danny. Nga had a bushel of good bits, but he also showed clear weaknesses, even at moments when he had to be strong.
Paerin Choa was acceptable as Steve, though I’m convinced this character has the stuff to be much funnier - and would have been if Choa had displayed a greater gift for comedy.
As Pamela, the cartoonist whom Danny falls in love with, Joyce Tan was merely adequate. Tan needs a lot of work on her intonation, and is still not entirely comfortable positioning herself on stage. Tan has done a fair amount of film work and TV commercials, which explains why she was stronger in the video snippets than in the more theatrical aspects of this production. Though one must admit that her strongest scene was a non-video scene, when Danny confesses his love for her. Here, Tan could play to her strength as she was called upon to express emotions with her face rather than her voice. However, her last line in this key scene was delivered without the necessary emotional charge.
Jeremy Samuel also has to work on using his physical movements better; he too seems not entirely comfortable being up there on stage. Nonetheless, Samuel was one of the best people here at delivering Chok’s lines. He just has to improve his ability to deliver the subtext with his facial gestures.
As Chris, Pamela’s female lover, Jacqueline Chow was competent, but not much more. Admittedly, the part did not offer an actor much, but Chow’s performance failed to bring anything more to fill the part out.
Lionel Chok’s production team also deserves a note of commendation here. For a threadbare production, they handled the technical aspects and multiple scene changes fairly well.QLRS Vol. 3 No. 3 Apr 2004