>IS this OUR STOP? by The Necessary Stage M1 Youth Connection

>reviewed by adele tan

>date: 25 feb 2000
>time: 8pm
>venue: visitors' centre at suntec city
>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.
 

>>>>>YOU WON'T WANT TO GET OFF THIS BUS

This is a journey unlike most others. Where would a play on a bus take us? What kinds of stops will it make or pull (pardon the pun)? These are the questions that will be asked in any performance that foregrounds movement and travel. Invariably, we cannot escape the almost stock concepts of departures, destinations and arrivals. Indeed, one of the lines in the play says, "I don't want to let the place I end up define me."

Playwright and director Chong Tze Chien has chosen to answer these questions in the form of his 16 year-old protagonist, Tracy (played with brilliant understated energy by Michelle Chong). She is the locus of the play as the audience hop on the bus with her and her alter egos and all take a trip into her growth of consciousness. Tracy has just received her O Level results and has to make life-changing decisions about where to go. She is in a fix because 7 points will open doors for her to most places, yet not good enough to bag a scholarship. Her alter egos (played by Caroline Fernandez and Loong Seng Onn who have both shown great versatility in multiple role-playing) show versions of Tracy-future, in her twenties and thirties.

Yet, the play is not just a story about Tracy and her future selves, as that would have constrained the scope and consigned it to a personal realm. The play really takes flight only because the playwright has managed to serendipitously interface Tracy's passage with a narrative of the Singaporean State and culture. As the audience travels with Tracy home, we are also aware of the larger backdrop of reality on the physical roads. Traversing through the arterial motorways of Singapore, we are penetrating into Singapore's heart and soul as much as we are going through Tracy's being. The play toys with a sad ironic predicament of Tracy having the opportunities to become whoever she wants to be that her youth affords her and the fact that society systematically streamlines ones choices and effortlessly end up with a dead-end job that defines her existence. The social commentary that is woven through also pushes forth many complex questions: Who decides where we go and end up? Are we too young to make difficult choices and then to be held accountable for the discretions of youth (recall the bond-breaking issue)? Who is going to be there for us if and when we trip up? Is society forgiving and generous with second chances?

>>'The play is essentially smart, funny, fast, furious and punchy, delivering lightning-speed swipes and strikes at places where it matters most'

But the most sustained, pointed and explosive moments of the play come into being when sex and sexual politics are mapped onto the trajectories of our state and culture as if the underbelly of society is refusing to be ignored. As Tracy grows aware of her developing body and sexuality, she dallies with thoughts of herself potentially contributing to society 'physically' if she cannot contribute 'mentally'. At this point, the bus transforms into a strip-tease joint with the characters humping around on the metal poles of the bus with the audience as complicit voyeurs. The sexual tenor spills over and works as a polemical device against our state and society that has repeatedly refused to come to grips with sexual issues and the presence of a sex industry. The prostitution hypothesis is stretched further by Tze Chien who pulls the sexual symbolism onto the conduct of the business and economics in Singapore, begging one to ask if we all not part of the same sex industry in which one sells our souls and bodies to become slaves of development and what others want us to be. In a surrealistic turn, the characters ask as they are serving food, 'Would you like to have my brains/heart?'. We may have repressed our social sexuality for the sake of upholding our social mores and fabric ("Don't hump around too much or else the pillars of my house will fall") but all the same there is the betrayal of the social body and perhaps our economic achievements have become substitute orgiastic climaxes. When it comes to the issue of foreign talent the sexual undertow cannot be neglected. Singapore is yet another female mating receptacle, which is simultaneously xenophobically discriminating between species and wanting to be flooded or attract the best 'genes' and 'sperms' from elsewhere in a pseudo-biological paternity race/competition to reproduce the best offspring. But the play's most damning indictment comes when the characters literally become meat for sale and hung on butchers' hooks on the bus railings.

Apart from what the play has to say, the substance that makes the play so compelling is not merely its experimental audacity in choosing to stage a site specific work and transform an ordinary, taken for granted public space such as a TIBS bus into a dramatic site. It could have been an MRT train, a ferry or a container truck for that matter. What clinches it as a conceptual success is the fact that the character and thematic developments are integrated tightly with the external environment outside the bus and the transmutations of the bus into a plane, home and meat locker such that elements are not just incidental, aesthetic or exogenous. I marvel at Tze Chien's ability to construct some incredibly sparky moments such as taking Tracy's ambition of becoming a flight stewardess then morphing the bus into a plane (with cloth cutouts mimicking airplane windows) and colliding the set-up with metaphysical tinkerings. The characters flirt with the possibility of meeting God at greater altitudes but the playwright-director slips in the more uncomfortable metaphorical links: Which Gods are we meeting as we climb the corporate ladder? Do we get a clearer view of God on a higher floor? Or are we accidents waiting to happen; the higher we go the greater the impact upon crashing onto the ground? One may have to take it with a good measure of suspension of disbelief but the ingenious design by the conceptualist makes short work of our leap of imagination. Depending on the nature of the play's scenes, the bus is at once a fantasy playground and a claustrophobic space with little room to manoeuvre and no apparent way out.

The play is essentially smart, funny, fast, furious and punchy, delivering lightning-speed swipes and strikes at places where it matters most. Moments and nuances come so quickly and subliminally that the play begets the urge for repeated viewing. Strewn with epigrams and witty moment-defining one-liners, the play feels like a satirical sitcom with some tinges of a Luis Brunuel surrealistic film. The play can at times get caught up with being too slick and give expected responses in its seizing up of our culture and society. In many ways, the issues at stake are not new and have been theatrical hobby-horses for a while but its alignment with the immediate situation of a 16 year-old and the fact that there is an innocent Tracy at stake here saves the play from a degeneration into mere cleverness and grounds it with shades of humanistic pathos. As the characters search for their identities and decide upon the places they want to end up (Caroline at Mhd Sultan Rd and Seng Onn at UE Square) because "to be true to ourselves, that's all we have and can be", none is more emotively resonant than Tracy's departure from the bus and letting another alter ego replace on her trip home to her parents. At the end of it, the glitz and glibness of the earlier lines are shorn away for the sadness that comes from the heavy burden of choice on a young girl's shoulders and her simple, poignant plea for acceptance when she says, "My name is Tracy. Can you love me?", because at age 16, that is all that genuinely matters.