>KUO PAO KUN DOUBLE-BILL (MANDARIN) by National Arts Council

>reviewed by adele tan

>date: 9 jun 2000
>time: 8pm
>venue: the drama centre
>rating: ***

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


Expectations are running high for this new interpretation of the classic Kuo Pao Kun plays which are almost considered canonical works of local theatre. Now in the hands of younger director Lim Jen Erh and delivered by a celebrity comedian, Jack Neo, one waits with bated breath to see how the original plays will be transformed and reappropriated by a new vision. However, this humble reviewer has not the privilege of watching previous productions of the plays. But perhaps without the precedence set in one's mind, it is less difficult to remain relatively objective in one's critique. Both plays regard themselves with the absurdities of bureaucratic rule captured within the small quotidian details of the average Singaporean.

On stage, we are presented with familiar situations which we can relate to but often escape our critical scrutiny and observation. They are instances of the insignificant citizen caught within the bewildering web of official hierarchy/machinery, administrative red tape and political rhetoric. Foregrounding the trope of the conflict between the individual and the oppressive forces of the state, the two plays are seen to be champions of the Singaporean underdog.

>>'The casting of Jack Neo as the sole performer of the two monologues is at best only apt'

THE COFFIN IS TOO BIG FOR THE HOLE dramatizes the tussle between tradition and government regulation whereby the present rules are too rigidly held to accommodate the exigencies of customary funeral rites and practices. Like the Chinese funeral music which jar our aural senses, the play highlights our everyday dissonance and difficulties, where things are frequently at odds with each other, for example the paradoxical boisterous atmosphere within a supposedly somber occasion. THE COFFIN finds a young man trying to bury his Ah Kong in a traditional coffin that is too big for state-designated burial hole. The ensuing resolution (or rather compromise) is an equally ludicrous affair whereby the play takes a satirical dig at the palliative authorities who circumvent the problem by having Ah Kong buried vertically and to the tune of "Stand Up for Singapore", in order to preserve the plot dimensions.

NO PARKING ON ODD DAYS sees the frustrations of the average car owner's frequent brushes with the traffic officials, wardens and attendants who police the roads with excessive zeal and not enough compassion, consideration and sometimes even common sense. NO PARKING tells of a father's struggle to air his grievances in court, his fight to stand up against an all too smugly procedural traffic court and to preserve his dignity as a righteous and just man in his son's eyes who does not cower in the face of unreasonable authority.

The casting of Jack Neo as the sole performer of the two monologues, however, is at best only apt. Neo slips rather comfortably into the role as the self-effacing, everyday Singaporean Joe and captures the expressions and mannerisms of such a non-threatening personality to a T. His fluent, rapid-fire dispense of Hokkien lines in and out of his Mandarin ones are certainly impressive and laughter-inducing. Yet, one cannot help but feel that Neo is again reprising his familiar roles in Comedy Nite and Money No Enough. Perhaps his customary smoothness and panache have become his stumbling block on the artistic stage as he comes across more as an entertainer/compere but not a full-bodied actor. Director Lim Jen Erh is similarly guilty of trying to milk Neo's TV impersonations for laughs - the Liang PoPo reference is a case in point. The frequent hamming up of the lines repeatedly diffuses the potential of the humour and laughter's ability to sink under the skin and disconcert the audience. The lightness of the play when exaggerated and trivialized allows the issues to be summarily dismissed and rendered non-intrusive. Lim did a fair bit of updating to the details to make the 15-year old play more current and the interplay of Hokkien and Mandarin is indeed a nice and deft touch albeit formulaic in recent times. However, by no means did Lim try for a radical new interpretation despite the liberties offered up by the passing of time. As one member of the audience commented at my earshot, that if this play was intending to be satirical, it should have dared to go all the way (gan gan) rather than hide behind polite little sniggers.

The performances of these two plays may have been sold-out shows but judging from the audience pool, a good portion of the crowd came to see Jack Neo in action and in-person. In the end, the audience still got to see the usual television Jack Neo but nothing new.