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Vol. 3 No. 3 Apr 2004

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Love Is All You Knead
Page 2

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.

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QLRS Vol. 3 No. 3 Apr 2004


About Richard Lord
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Return to Vol. 3 No. 3 Apr 2004

  Other Extra Media articles in this Issue

Laugh Across The Atlantic
Richard Lord reviews recent comedy in Singapore.

Clearly, A Mark of Some Distinction
Richard Lord on The Gospel According To Mark.

Related Links

The Necessary Stage
External link.

External link.

Toy Factory
External link.

Haresh Sharma profile
External link.

Interview with Haresh Sharma
Vol. 1 No. 4 Jul 2002.

Dialogue between Haresh Sharma and Jeffery Tan
External link to Singapore Theatre Reviews.

Tony Perez, Playwright
External link.

Lionel Chok homepage
External link.

Lionel Chok profile
External link to Wirecrossing.

Review of Such Sweet Sorrow
External link.

Marriage of Inconvenience
External link to Theatreworks.

Review of Marriage of Inconvenience
External link to Inq7.net.


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