Saturday, March 22, 2014

Double bill

To truly appreciate being Singaporean is to accept the transience of our existence as a people. On the one hand, there is the desperate longing to capture a sense of permanence, but the reality is that life moves us not just from location to location but also through time -- from the here-and-now to the "will we be remembered?" and "will we have meant something?" when the realisation of our mortality finally dawns.

In the two plays in Play Out: A Double Bill featured in the NUS Arts Festival 2014, this theme carries strongly in the slice-of-life family drama, "Wai?" and in the more abstract movement piece, "Candlelight".

In "Wai?" an elderly couple frets over the fate of their son when television news reports a terrorist attack in the country he is residing in. Their anxiety over the possible reasons why the son is not picking up his phone escalates into a blame-game that dredges up the couple's past history, and their deteriorating relationship with each other and their son.

The presentation is realistic and made-for-TV, the stage set up in a typical dining room-living room suite familiar to HDB-dwellers. The dialogue is chronological and easy to follow, as the couple reveals their attempts to cope with raising a child whom they hope will live a much better life than them, yet regretting not being able to hold on to that child when he does fulfill their dreams for him.

Veteran actors, Gerald Chew and Judy Ngo are obviously playing characters older than themselves, but have a good sense of timing in delivering the kind of verbal fencing that elderly couples (like my own grandparents) are wont to do. There is some humour and poignancy in the jabs that they trade... predictable, yet true-to-life at the same time. At one point, I wanted to rush the stage as their son to reassure them that I was all right, but since I was in a box seat a floor above, I exercised a little restraint and the urge went away.

"Candlelight" was visually arresting in the movement choreography of the chorus whose members also portrayed specific characters in the play. Some movement could have been trimmed for brevity and the lurking presence of Grandpa's, um, ghost(?) seemed superfluous, at least until closer towards the end when its appearance could have been more impactful. As such, this play took a while to warm up, but when it did, there was quite an interesting story to follow about a dyslexic man tasked with recording his family history. Of course, not being able to read and write puts a bit of a damper on his efforts to do so.

The man remembers his grandfather's stories, verbally passing them on to his daughters as a way to keep the memory of "Ah Kong" alive. Despite initial resistance, at least elder daughter, Jadene, learns from her linguistic heritage to become her own person with her own brand of storytelling.

The script is quite linguistically clever, although it tends to bounce a lot between internal reverie and family interaction. Snatches of memories do not necessarily connect with other real-time incidents, but rather make linguistic and philosophical connections with the characters they involve -- dad and daughter, in particular. This piece is clearly harder to follow than the previous one, but at its core it is pretty substantial. It just makes the brain work harder to get at it.

Overall, a satisfying double bill. A nice contrasts of styles, well-executed in presentation make for a decent evening at the theatre.

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