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 fiancÚ, 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 Ó 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.
[Page 1 | Page 2]
QLRS Vol. 1 No. 3 Apr 2002