>SAMPAK ENGTAY by Theatre Practice

>reviewed by daniel lim

>date: 1 dec 2000
>time: 8pm
>venue: 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.


'Yentyl', William Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet' and a slight overdose of 'Phua Chu Kang' (1st season). Wrap with Chinese opera costumes and traditional Indonesian dance…. and serve hot with a generous garnish of Singlish dialogue, and you will get my impression of SAMPAK ENGTAY.

SAMPEK ENGTAY professes to be a love tragedy based on the popular Chinese folklore, 'The Butterfly Lovers', but interpreted in an Indonesian context, focusing on issues of women's inequality and triumphs the cause of undying love, albeit in a comic light-hearted way. Set in a female-oppressed traditional society, Engtay has to cross-dress to fulfill her dream to go to school. On the way she meets honest simpleton, Sampek, and falls in love. Through struggles and obstacles they finally meet in "life after death" as celestial butterflies (Erm, one look at the stage and the large hanging screens imprinted with butterflies and my immediate thought was how the transformation of love-struck couple to butterflies would be portrayed. The potential for tackiness that I may have to endure later was frightening ... ).

>>'I was pleasantly surprised at how well it turned out overall.'

But first on to the cast. As the Narrator, Darius Tan tried to clarify the setting for the play by squabbling with Darren Chiam, who plays Sukiu, the servant of Sampek; which only got me even more confused. Mainland China? Indonesia? What? In addition, the use of Bertolt Brecht, especially in the latter parts of the play, disturbed me. The Narrator's constant defence of his supposed deviations from the script with "… Mr. Director said so" and the constant squabbling and sulking on stage between the Narrator and Mrs.Nio at Sampak's deathbed took away much of my sympathy for his plight and replaced it with irritation. On the other hand, alienation was used to good effect in other scenes; like when the Narrator, while talking about Engtay's journey to school, (through a television set prop) tries to tune into the right frequency to reach out to us, the audience. It was so entertaining that I did not even notice the set change.

However if the purpose of using Bertolt Brecht was to get the audience to sit up and notice the issues at hand, like women's inequality, it failed utterly. As a comedy, though, it was near perfect. The dialogue and rapport between the cast was witty, spontaneous and tastefully funny. I especially enjoyed the witty banter and trauma in the Ciok household when Engtay announced her desire to study in a large town. Dick Su and Zelda Tatiana Ng, playing Mr. and Mrs. Ciok, were especially hilarious in their roles as doting, soft-hearted parents. Elaine Cheah, playing Engtay, also shone in her aggressive courtship scenes with Sampek, where time and time again, she berated Sampek's stupidity with total understanding and love despite his numerous limitations. A chance for director N. Riantiarnoia to come up with deliciously evil puns to pinpoint the insensitivity of the male gender, perhaps? Well, as the saying goes, "it is better to attack than defend".

Special mention must be given to the elaborate costumes and set, which were classic yet strikingly colourful - without looking gaudy or garish. To the backstage crew's credit, the changes in sets were smooth and in no way disrupted the flow and my enjoyment. In addition, the fusion of traditional Indonesian Dance with Chinese Wayang (opera) was flawless. Engtay's knocking and the opening of Sampek's tomb only got one snort of critique from me. I had the distinct feeling of watching a cheesy Ritz cracker commercial in the making with the cracking up of the tomb; what with the cliched accompaniment of lighting and thunder to the plunging of Engtay into its deep recesses. Upon reflection, the tomb scene and the subsequent LCD projection of two butterflies fluttering away and the release of paper butterflies from above, were the best ways the play could have ended. Noting this scene's tremendous potential for disaster, I was pleasantly surprised at how well it turned out overall.

Actually, I totally enjoyed the first 90 minutes of the play. The sharp rapport, humourous script and the generous sprinkling of Singlish terms and Chinese dialect, used with finesse and consideration, heightened my appetite for more. I eagerly awaited the end of the interlude for the next scene - the degeneration and demise of heartbroken Sampek (who upon arriving too late, learned that his beloved "sworn brother"; Engtay was betrothed to Macun, a rich landlord). Sadly for me, it also signaled the degeneration and eventual demise of my expectations, with tacky dialogue like "…get Dr Koh from K.K. Hospital…" (to treat Sampek's lovesickness) and terms like "hand, foot and mouth disease" being used. A case of a play trying too hard to relate to its audience; and eventually going the extra mile... right into disaster.

Overall, SAMPAK ENGTAY was a strong performance from a talented cast that amused and entertained with plenty of laughs. Forget about the issues of women's inequality or love everlasting. It is worth watching for the humour alone.