By Richard Lord
I realise that chemistry is a hard thing to master. In fact, the only reason I got a half-decent grade in my high school Chemistry course was that the kind-hearted teacher graded on a sweeping curve so he wouldn't have to fail three-quarters of the students. (I think he was also afraid that his lab would be blown to smithereens if he allowed some of us back in for a second year.)
Mastering chemistry is just as hard in the laboratory of life - better known to most of us as the theatre. This truth was amply demonstrated in a number of the leading local theatre productions which ran in Singapore during the last few months of 2001.
Successful chemistry was an essential element in making the Wild Rice production of Blithe Spirit (in October) a most rewarding effort. Noel Coward's 1940's evergreen worked quite nicely transplanted to a Singapore closer to our own day, but it would never have done so without the sparkling chemistry that flowed between the highly talented cast members. Lim Kay Siu as the fatuous novelist parried Coward's witty lines and pleasant superficialities wonderfully with his two wives, one dead (ethereally delivered by Tan Kheng Hua of A War Diary fame) and the other at least temporarily alive (carried off oh-so-convincingly by Lim's real-life spouse, Neo Swee Lin.) The two key minor characters, a séance-summoning medium played by Margaret Chan and the maid, rendered in perfectly puffing fashion by Pamela Oei, served as splendid catalysts to the three leads and their problems. Director Glenn Goei, an acclaimed actor himself, guided this talented quintet through all the paces needed to make Coward's work sparkle once more despite the shifts in place and time.
Conversely, the two interesting productions that the luna-id company gave us back in November serve as a lesson on how the lack of chemistry can work against a show. The better of the two works, Down The Road, by American playwright Lee Blessing, offers an intriguing look at some of the darker corners of American life and the way these corners get illuminated by the media. The focus figure of Down The Road is one William Reach, a serial killer who preyed on young females (some of them quite young, pre-pubescent.) Now in prison, Reach becomes the subject of a commissioned book being written by a husband-wife team of journalists. The qualms that the journalists, Dan and Iris Henniman, have about dealing with such a man and lavishing further fame and attention on him are easily dispelled in their own desire for fame and attention (not to mention money). But these qualms are revived when the Hennimans realise that Reach is insidiously manipulating them to shape his story into the form he wants and, along the way, driving a wedge between the couple to suit his own dark purposes.
The material sets the field for a powerful piece of theatre, but the luna-id crew didn't achieve the full potential here due to a lack of volatile chemistry between the three players. The chemistry between Reach and Iris Henniman is an especially dangerous concoction which should at times give a frightening emotional tinge to the show, but it failed to reach its full force as the two actors involved seemed to pull back at key points; in any case, never connecting in those most dangerous of ways. More importantly perhaps, the sad fraying of the Hennimans' marriage never presents itself as the loss it should be as the chemistry between Rasiah Raslyn Agatha and Mark Waite never developed to a level where it convinced us that these people had started out the dark journey in a deeply loving relationship. Ultimately, this luna-id production demonstrates an interesting axiom of theatre: how actors can deliver strong individual performances ( both Rasiah Raslyn Agatha's Iris and Rehaan Engineer's Reach were accomplished, finely nuanced characterizations while Mark Waite's Dan was quite serviceable) but never generate the full power needed for a stage relationship because the chemistry simply fails.
Luna-id's second autumnal offering, Joined At The Head, is an even more emotionally difficult piece centred around a more insidious killer. In this case, that killer is cancer, and its most immediate victim Maggy Burroughs, an otherwise sprightly thirty-something whom fate has dealt a lousy hand. But Maggy B. is not really the central character of this play; that position goes to Maggie Mulroney, now a highly successful writer based in New York on a book promotion tour back in the Boston where she grew up. What unites the two Maggies, other than their name, is Jim Burroughs, the ailing Maggy's husband and a former 'big-time serious' boyfriend of Maggy the writer. And as fate, in the form of playwright Catherine Butterfield, has it, this latter Maggy is in between relationships and still harbors warm feelings for old flame Jim.
Jim learns that Maggy the scribe is back in town, contacts her at the hotel and invites her out to dinner. Plot starts to thicken, hmm? Not too much actually, at least not yet. On the drive back to his home, Jim informs this Maggy that they're to be joined for dinner by Maggy his stricken wife. As the play develops (at an uneven pace unfortunately), a strong bond forms between the two Maggies who end up as soul mates sharing much, much more than their feelings for Jim. All the while, Jim himself remains a vital presence in the lives of both of the women, which sets off a part of the emotional tension driving the play.
Joined At The Head is, indeed, at its strongest when any two of its central characters are together, even when only linked by the telephone. Other scenes, evidently devised mainly to provide Maggy M. a life and emotional terrain beyond her relationship with the Burroughs couple, often come off as merely functional, peopled by characters who are either bordering on stereotype and/or barely credible. (A Boston talkshow host who tries to squeeze Maggy M. into his own deck of clichés, actually slides beyond credibility.) When the emotional spin of Joined At The Head works, the play achieves an undeniable clout, moving us with the sincerity of its emotional charge. When it doesn't succeed, it goes flat, with this flatness emphasized by the occasional heights the work does achieves.
However, the luna-id version never completely fulfills the play's limited potential as that vital chemistry between the three main characters never clicks. Again, the failure here cannot be attributed to the individual performances at the centre or the sure, informed direction of Christian Huber, but rather the fact that the three main actors - Kate Naughton, Gerald Chew and Anna Belle Francis - never build those deep-rooted connections essential to this play. The script charts the dynamics involved in the levels of love amongst this trio, all intensified by their sense of loss and even greater impending loss, but we as an audience had to take it on faith: it never truly came across for us on the stage. What we were left with was a fairly strong performance by Kate Naughton as the writer Maggy, and commendable turns by Chew as Jim and Francis as Maggy. But these remained performances individually focused on carefully following the script and never really joined at the heart. One of Singapore's longest established companies, The Necessary Stage, also mounted two productions in the last quarter of 2001. The first, Abuse Suxx, was a rather irritating exercise, spewing self-indulgence and self-congratulations all over a patchwork evening; it achieved its best moments of chemistry when consummate showman Kumar was alone on stage. However, TNS's final production of the year, Spoilt, was a solid success, an exemplary way to round off a year of mixed achievement. And why - mainly because the two actors involved were continually able to work out the right formulae of complicated relationships.
Chong Tze Chen's script centres on Tracy, an outwardly successful 33-year old Singaporean woman who decides shortly before her wedding to call the whole thing off so that she can go mad instead. From there, the play probes the question of whether one can simply ordain one's own insanity and how the administration over at Woodbridge is going to buy into this proposition.
As in Joined At The Head, here an old boyfriend plays a key role in propelling the main character into a sweep of soul exploration. In this case, it's Tracy's hexed ex from JC, a sympathetic fellow with experience in this business of going mad, having been cashiered out of National Service because of repeated hallucinations, particularly one involving a rather libidinous ghost, Madam White Snake.
Under this fellow's reluctant tutelage, Tracy learns the basics of going insane, bringing herself ever closer to the edge, without finally quite confronting herself with that key question as to why. Along the path of her torturous journey (often presented with surprisingly appropriate humour), we get to meet Madam White Snake herself as well as Tracy's parents. (We had met Tracy's fiancé Richard earlier in the action, and he will make an awkward reappearance later.) The play moves in spurts, spins and slow flows all around the troubled minds and souls of the various characters. All these were brought to life by just two performers, Karen Tan and Loong Seng Onn. Both were simply wonderful, not only in creating their individual characters but in achieving that alchemy between the various personages that made this one of the strongest productions we caught in the last quarter of 2001. Tan and Loong connect dramatically in just about every scene in which they appear. Indeed, they connect even when portraying those who just don't connect anymore, such as Tracy and Richard or Tracy's emotionally inept parents. Tan is also impressive in her solo moments, but it's only when Loong comes on in his various guises that she sprouts into full fruition as an actress. The strength of the production was greatly enhanced by the fittingly eerie music composed by Shueh-Li Ong and Michael Spicer, but it was the work of director Jena Ng and her two splendid actors who gave the audience a thrilling view onto the spoils of lives lived at the edge - until that edge pulled itself out from under the feet of its daring protagonists.
This may even be a case where the charge between the actors makes the script seem stronger than it actually is. If so, it only further proves the essential role chemistry plays in our lives and our theatre.
QLRS Vol. 1 No. 2 Jan 2002