>MADAM WHAT'S NEXT? by The ETCeteras

>reviewed by daniel teo

>date: 25 feb 2000
>time: 8pm
>venue: the victoria theatre
>rating: ***1/2

>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.
 

>>>>>DE(CON)STRUCTION

Reviews are maybe the hardest thing to write - you stick your head out and you wish you sounded intelligent enough to escape the cruel wagging tongues. And then comes along a play like MADAM WHAT'S NEXT?(MWN) to give you a hard time trying to work out the inner dialogue you have inside you about whether you liked the play, why, how and so on.

Let's first talk about the concrete - MWN is primarily about a theatre group trying to stage the classic "Legend of the White Snake". However the real story is really about the play's inner divisions as the prima donnas, acteurs and actrices bring in their personal problems and squabbles. In the course of grueling rehearsals and colliding egos on the set, lovers are parted, a father and son is reunited and a child is born.

What was interesting about the play was how it deconstructed the theatre process for the audience. Starting with a few scenes of rehearsals, we were shown what happened at the rehearsals of the theatre group (in the play). Much like NGs of the television and film industry, we see what happens when lighting go all wrong, when actors forget their lines or when props are put in the wrong place. We are shown errant hand phones going off every minute, financial problems faced by the producer, cast who don't seem to know what is actually happening - and believe me these things happen all the time in rehearsals.

Throughout the play this division between the play and the play-within-a-play is utilized incessantly - some times too much actually. What this division succeeded in primarily was to bring about the laughs and comedic effects, alternating between English to signify staged playtime and Mandarin for real playtime. This linguistic juxtaposition alongside with numerous puns brought about the fun quotient of the play.

>>'What the play didn't do for me was how it had such a wealth of material and talent in terms of playwright and actors but it didn't exploit its latent potential to the fullest.'

The main reason in doing this play-within-a-play structure was actually to facilitate the central theme of Art mirroring Life. By juxtaposing play events such as White Snake's pregnancy with real event of the director being pregnant, thematic unity was established throughout the play by using this motif repeatedly. Soon enough you get the actor reuniting with his long-lost son when the rehearsals reach the scene of identical circumstances.

However even with the industrious matching of events in the two realities, there was a certain pointlessness to the whole exercise. Yes it was funny at some moments, yes it was clever at other parts but really was there a need for such stubborn persistency? If the play had achieved a "Sixth-sense" kind of twist with this assiduous effort then I say bravo. But the effort never did climax into anything really significant despite all the playwright's best intentions.

Furthermore this fragmentation of the entire play into rehearsal segments and staged play segments broke the momentum of the actual play. While it was funny the first few segment, it became numbing after a while. It would have been better if there wasn't the multimedia intermission between scenes as it only added more inertia.

Another dodgy area of MWN was the inclusion of the TCS artistes in the production. Like many productions with TCS artist in it, there always seem to be an invisible divide between the stage artist and the TCS artist - they just don't gel. The divide is subtle but it disorientates the audience from establishing full suspension of disbelief.

Furthermore while they were competent in Mandarin, Yao Wenlong and Vivian Lai was unbelievably abysmal when the scene changed into the English terrain. A particularly poignant scene where Yao explains why his love for Lai has died was butchered by his atrocious diction. Vivian Lai's diction is commendable and very suitable for the stage due to her fine precision of articulation but alas only when she is talking in Mandarin - her English is just as appalling.

What left no room to ponder were the impressive performances from the overall cast, particularly Sharon Low and Tang Wan Chin. Sharon Low as White Snake was strong and vulnerable at the same time, a curious mix of tenderness and grit. Her dancing background shone through when she glided across the stage with her graceful moves - it was hard to imagine Cynthia Koh even attempting to do the role.

There was no doubt that Tang Wan Chin was really the star of the show. A one-woman show on her own, she was hilarious as the harassed Stage Manager nursing a secret desire to act. Reminding me of a milder Bette Milder, she was brassy and loud and so very funny - she deserved an entire play in her own right. Previously the stunning Venus in VENUS CAN LOVE, she proved once again that you don't need to be the lead to be the star.

The sets were just as impressive with their minimalist feel but high emotive charge. Merely using a few (styrofoam) stones, fake trees, two stair platforms and a few strips of wood, splendid landscapes of pagodas, temples and bridges were created. What was most impressive was the flexibility and creativity these few props were utilized to evoke the desired impression. In this case, certainly less is more.

What the play didn't do for me was how it had such a wealth of material and talent in terms of playwright and actors (yeah okie... plus the TCS actors) but it didn't exploit its latent potential to the fullest. Sure it was funny and the word play was adroit but surely it could have been so much more. MWN is a good production but it wasn't as good as it could have been - deconstruct all you want but don't deconstruct the magic.