>THE LADY OF SOUL AND HER ULTIMATE 'S' MACHINE by TheatreWorks

>reviewed by jeremy samuel

>date: 16 mar 2001
>time: 8pm
>venue: the fort canning black box
>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.
 

>>>>>SOUL-SEARCHING

When THE LADY OF SOUL AND HER ULTIMATE 'S' MACHINE was first staged in 1992, the Public Entertainment Licensing Unit (Pelu) took issue with it for, among other things, its "unfavourable portrayal of civil servants". You can see why. Tan Tarn How's satirical pen pins down the byzantine intricacies of beauracracy with such accuracy that one suspects him of having been a golf-playing, sub-committee-forming Mandarin in a past life.

All that is by the way, however. The main focus of the play is the eternal question: has Singapore lost its soul in the quest for material success? To answer this Tan gives us Madame Soul, a brothel mamasan with attitude. The madam, Pamela Oei turns in a sizzling, sultry performance and, incidentally, the best fake orgasm since Meg Ryan in 'When Harry Met Sally'.

The action turns on a nationwide search by civil servant (and President's scholar) Derek for the missing element in Singapore's make-up. As he puts it, "we have caches of cash/ But not a drop of dash." For a public servant to have imagination is, of course, unthinkable, and Derek gets his comeuppance shortly after the interval. By suggesting increased freedom, he opens the door to social anarchy - summed up by his boss, in a masterpiece of understatement, as "women in loose attire and lewd poses," and represented on stage by the 'S' machine. This invention of Madame's is a life-size latex doll (Sylvie Ong in a superb, scene-stealing cameo) dressed like a leather-fetishist's wet dream.

>>'All in all LADY contains a poorly executed discussion of Singapore's essential emptiness within a rollicking, sexy script'

This production, directed by original cast member Gerald Chew, is skilfully executed, considering the short gestation period (ten or so rehearsals), and full of nice touches - the civil servants, although boringly dressed in executive wear, change their ties in every single scene. The script is more of a problem. It does not matter that the play has dated slightly (no more jokes about chewing gum, please), as the issues it considers are still relevant now. What does jar is that these issues are never resolved or even discussed in any depth. The arguments, shorn of wit and wordplay, are dry and simplistic - one character representing repression, another absolute freedom, and so forth. Worse, the speeches often degenerate into the kind of reductive polemic one might expect to find in a GP essay. Examples abound: "Art doesn't emanate from ministries" or "Look at the totalitarian states. The best art there is subversive."

Tan is at his best when indulging in flights of verbal fancy (such as his description of prostitutes supporting the arts: "whores with a cause"). His obvious delight in words is brought out by the performers, notably Hossan Leong as Derek, who handles the fast-paced patter with aplomb. Pamela Oei's tongue - when not in someone else's ear - is equally deft, and Rodney Oliveiro is a delight as Derek's gay lover. The supporting cast is equally good, although Joni Tham's sloppy diction lost us some of the funniest lines in the play.

All in all LADY contains a poorly executed discussion of Singapore's essential emptiness within a rollicking, sexy script that could nonetheless do with tightening and a touch more sophistication in its arguments. Still, this slick production - first night hiccups with the lighting aside - and Tan's stylish wit contrive to provoke some thought, and at the very least to provide an entertaining evening out.