>PAINTED STORIES (PART two) by Action Theatre

>reviewed by arthur kok

>date: 21 Jun 2000
>time: 8pm
>venue: 42 waterloo street
the tub: **1/2
women on canvas - a musical: ****

>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.


Art historians would do a back flip for joy. Never has there been, to my knowledge, any single series of plays that focuses so exclusively on paintings by bankable names. The first play draws its inspiration from and names itself after Degas' "The Tub" where a women is depicted in an instance of ablution. Using the painting as a still for a more complex narrative, writers Li Xueying and Chew Hui Min breathe into the female subject of the painting three names, three personalities, one disorder in one person.

Catherine, Cat, Cathy. The anal-retentive wife, the hyper nymphomaniac and the misery-courting composite of the first two. These three vie in one person. Between baths, whole lives are lived with intrusions from other lives. These three are spaced out only by that brief cleansing routine in the tub. With the dawning realisation that each personality is referenced from societal archetypes, the central character builds towards an awareness of her own ludicrously false state. In one climatic scene, the confused "Cat(h(y)erine)" imagines her (social) self in public with a child half-born and half hanging between her legs.

The one element which kept the play from soaring was the at times over-conscious need to be intelligent. Especially in the final scene, the incongruity of clumsily packed metaphors spewing from the mouth of a women on the verge of collapse somehow missed the sublime and wound up contrived (c. EQUUS). Near the end, when "Cat(h(y)erine)" shook herself and declared "This is all the self-indulgence I can manage", one experienced great resonance.

Nonetheless, with a few shakes of bath salts, "The Tub" can swim as a re-look at female archetypes, an exploration of a woman who tries to be but is never becoming and so never becomes.

>>'The play drove on with thrilling energy, touching on issues as to stir enough laughter and thought before snapping from one vignette into another'


An art gallery. A collection of paintings. Different genres, different media, different periods, different provenance. A fit arena for four women to meet, to talk, to 'hang'. Stubbornly nameless, these four are random living snapshots of the ordinary. As with Degas, Giger, Magritte and Picasso, playwright Jonathan Lim highlights the extraordinary by framing the ordinary. In "Women on Canvas - A Musical", paintings are taken out of their frames leaving bare plastic frames suspended in mid-air. Instead, the works of art are projected onto a screen just as actors actualise inanimate heroines depicted on canvas.

With the strong current of what you see is not what you get, the four women in the gallery start off as recognisable "kinds": an uppity tai-tai, a bespectacled crone, an "American Asian" youth and a museum guide. Like a cubist tilt or a surrealistic vision, however, these four women discard their easy categories at points in the play to set to music the female subjects of select paintings. The landed lady becomes a glamour puss objecting the fuzzy portrait done of her. The hypersensitive bookworm transforms into a pubescent girl with emerging sexuality and power. The Anglophilic youth gushes as a New York Jew recounting her experience with Warhol. The gallery help morphs into a bird-eating girl heavy with anxiety and fear of men who use, abuse and devour.

But really, Lim would point out that the changes reside in simply how you frame the character. Complementing with his own framing device - music - composer Bang Wenfu creates a textured tonality that floats midway between electronica and swing, teasing lyric out of prose. "Women on Canvas" is an outrageously successful pairing where Bang's keen musicality clasped tightly with Lim's wickedly delicious authorship.

The satisfaction of the performance was secured by the potent cast - Annie Ferrao, Candice de Rozario, Valerie Oh and Yzara Wong. A truly buoyant moment captured three sirens singing in perfect harmony degenerate into a hilariously Singlish instance of female bickering and then reluctantly shaping up for the next unsuspecting sea-faring enterprise. Whether singing in harmony, chiming and chanting in unison, or taking the stage individually, each actor stole a piece of the audience's heart. Mine went particularly to Wong, whose rare combination of impeccable timing, measured sensitivity, unquenchable energy and huge stage presence deserves adulation.

The play drove on with thrilling energy, touching on issues as to stir enough laughter and thought before snapping from one vignette into another. As the play ended, every character seemed wiser for having watched and studied the paintings on the wall and each other. And so the audience in the presence of such brilliance.