A few days after BOTE opened, a double-bill of new works by local writers, One Hot Light, closed its run at the Substation. These plays were the latest offering by Peel Arts.
The author-director of Hot Spring, Pua En, notes in his own bio profile that since co-founding Peel Arts, he has created “vital works of rare insight and immense social reach.” If this self-acclamation is anything more than pumped-up PR mega-hype, and if Pua actually believes this, then this fellow suffers from delusions of grandeur bordering on clinical psychosis. From what I have seen of his work, Pua’s métier is more a compendium/scrawl of overheated but still somehow tedious pieces filled with alternately trite or forced observations and stumbling social concerns. Hot Spring is an excellent example of the Pua approach/oeuvre.
Fittingly for a show by Peel Arts, Hot Spring never probes much below the surface, though it makes pretensions to such. (The programme warns us that we must “be prepared to look beneath the surface to uncover the layers of meaning built upon the jumbled timelines and incoherent dialogue”.) True, the dialogue is often incoherent - though frequently that came from the poor enunciation and projection of the actors - and the timelines were jumbled, but that certainly does not equal profundity.
A local TV personality arrives at the spring with her friend, the latter possessing a dark secret - she has AIDS. Seeking the medicinal benefits of this hot spring, they run into a rehabilitating convict and a refreshment stand operator who has the desire to become rich and powerful. Chance encounters such as this are laden with opportunities for strong dramatics, but here all such opportunities fizzle out into the banal and the borrowed.
No real life breathes in this play, and as it plods along, we the audience find ourselves as frustrated with these four people as they seem to be with their own empty lives. Heck, some interesting dialogue would at least have allowed us to enjoy this trek-to-nowhere special. In the end, Hot Spring was a lot of hot air, nothing more. The “biting satire” the programme promised us turned out to be pathetically toothless.
Of the four performers here, only Erwandy Bernama turned in a decent performance. Bernama strikes a score of interesting notes in trying to find a place for his character, suggesting that he is capable of truly praiseworthy work if given a solid script and concentrated direction. The other three performers show varying levels of inexperience, and all have to hone their craft much more before they aspire to accomplishment on the stage. The two woman here can begin by working on their projection and enunciation.
A much better effort, and thoroughly more engaging play, was Hot Spring’s companion piece, Got A Light? written and directed by Eleanor Tan. Got A Light? has some major flaws and still needs to be reworked, but its many strengths make it worth attacking again to come up with a truly admirable play.
Like its companion piece, Got A Light? works on the principle of chance encounters between people and the consequences these encounters can have. Unlike Hot Spring, however, the consequences here are indeed consequential.
Adria and Mark are an engaged couple, but their forthcoming marriage does not promise to be a happy one. Adria is having an affair, while Mark sometimes fills his empty evenings by seeking the solace of prostitutes. Faith is one of those he bonks. Faith has taken up selling her body to support a heroin habit. She gets her heroin from Keenan, who still has fond memories of past kindnesses by HDB neighbour Lucien. Lucien, meanwhile, is a quasi-reforming alcoholic, about to leap off the wagon because his non-smoking mother is in hospital dying of lung cancer, while his unrepentant alcoholic and physically abusive father, a heavy smoker, has seemingly gotten off without penalty.
Getting a little confused, or even groggy with calamity-overload? Imagine how we in the audience felt sitting there watching all this. About halfway through, I started wondering where Eleanor Tan was going to work in AIDS, world hunger, and the Middle East conflict.
In fact, yet to come are a fatal hit-and-run accident, a disruption in the heroin supply, lots of guilt, and the saving grace of human kindness to strangers. Thankfully, Tan is a fairly talented dramatist who has a knack for creating believable dialogue and fairly believable characters (even when the piled-on coincidences in her plot wrench our credibility). When things work in Got A Light? - and they do work quite often - author-director Tan manages to keep us strongly involved with her characters and their various, though wildly criss-crossing, dilemmas. To be fair though, Tan was helped in no small measure by a solid young cast who kept the play from tipping over into the dreary depths of melodrama; at times, it comes hazardously close to the edge of such a plunge.
Top kudos to Karen Goh as Adria, Felicia Oh as Faith, and Kenneth Karasu as Mark. As Lucien, Du’c Hoang was quite effective when scaling the character’s emotions, but not very convincing as a drunk. Julius Sim also turned in a nice performance as Keenan.
Let us be quite clear: Got A Light? is not yet a good play. By no means. But it does seem like a middle draft in what could become a powerful piece of drama. What Eleanor Tan should now do is trim the piece, rework some of the plot twists, take out those that still dangle, replace the heavy portions of saccharine with vinegar and starch. I mean, it is nice to see a play that reminds us of the enduring powers of human kindness, and how easy yet rare that quality is. But, dammit, when you pull this kindness out of a hat like a rabbit, or twist a plotline into a knot to get us there, we begin to doubt the message even when it is meant to be authentic.
Also, both Tan the writer and Tan the director have to either do a lot of research on areas they know little about, or drop these themes from the play. Case in point: Her ignorance of heroin addiction is embarrassing, considering the key role it plays in this story. Okay, we can maybe overlook her being unaware that junkies rarely have hunger cravings (heroin strongly dulls the appetite), and when they do eat, they find normally savoury food intolerably bitter. More important, you are not going to find a junkie decide to give up heroin, and be in high spirits the next day. Has Tan never heard of withdrawal? And has she never seen an alcoholic deep in his cups? Someone who has just rapidly downed a half bottle of hard booze is not going to jump up a number steps and land like an acrobat or engage in a serious conversation.
These are a couple of the areas where the playwright has obviously latched onto certain themes solely because of the power they have, but she has yet to fit them properly into her script.
And she has to be careful of overwriting, especially when it undercuts her clear strengths as a writer. The best example of this comes at play’s end. The penultimate scene finds Faith (miraculously recovered in one day from her addiction) and Mark together on a playground, Mark pushing Faith on the swing. Both are resolved to set their lives on an upward course, Mark in a marriage with Adria, Faith free of drugs. Both realise that unexpected kindness and love have given them this resolve. The visual image, the dialogue, everything here makes a perfect closing to the play. But then, just to be sure that we get her message, Tan adds an extraneous scene where another character strolls out and delivers this message in prosaic terms. This is unnecessary, believe me.
QLRS Vol. 1 No. 4 Jul 2002