>a right ritual by toy factory theatre ensemble

>reviewed jeremy samuel

>date: 25 aug 2001
>time: 8pm
>venue: toy factory theatrette
>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.


>>>>>BROKEN BISCUITS

A few days ago, I received an envelopeful of hell money, joss sticks and a torn photograph. I thought this might be a threat from the loan sharks, but it turned out to be the press release for A RIGHT RITUAL, the Toy Factory's latest attempt to blur the lines between life and art.

The storyline is simple: the Liu family decides to wind up an inherited family business, a bakery, in the hundredth year of its existence, and the proceedings of the evening are a ritual conducted to mark the occasion, and appease their dead ancestors. The method of presentation is another matter.

To begin with, the audience are transformed into members of the extended Liu family, liable to be buttonholed in the manner of the wedding guest in 'The Ancient Mariner'. The preoccupations of the main family members are revealed as they take it in turns to harangue us with their problems (Second Sister-In-Law is worried that her husband will allow his mistress to move into the ancestral home; Eldest Brother has lost an arm in a biscuit-making accident).

>>'A particularly annoying touch comes when the actors, in turn, step out of character to enact 'personal rituals' which range from self-flagellation to minor acts of arson, then proceed to ask the audience how they feel as witnesses.'


Confusingly, we flop between being participants and onlookers constantly - one minute being addressed intimately by Third Sister-In-Law, and the next suddenly becoming silent observers of the bedroom antics between her and Third Brother (both are teachers, and the sight of their academically dry sexual rites is possibly the most chilling of the evening).

Even more annoying is the constant movement - we are barely allowed to spend fifteen minutes in one location before being pulled to our feet and hauled up or down to another level of the three-storey shophouse. Each time thirty-odd people have to pick up their bags, move and settle down before the new segment can begin, which breaks the rhythm of the play. Several times there seems no point for the shift, apart from director Jonathan Lim's fondness for moving people around (see, for example, his 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead').

Four actors take it in turn to play different members of the family, a device familiar from 'Lao Jiu'. The cast is uniformly excellent - the only caveat being Caleb Goh's noticeable discomfort with the Chinese language -- and it is a testament to their versatility that they are able to inhabit each character completely despite the many role-changes.

That the family is dysfunctional hardly needs saying - there wouldn't be half as much drama if it wasn't. Over and above the personal tragedies - particularly that of Fourth Sister, sent to an asylum after attacking Eldest Sister-In-Law with a chopper for separating her from her lesbian lover - comes the overwhelming sense of the family being at an end. The ancestors, including the four siblings' own parents, are barely mentioned, and the biscuit factory is only of value to them in terms of its monetary worth.


There are numerous nice touches through the evening - the claustrophobic study of Fourth Sister, a portrait of madness; the energetic getai that appears, entertaining if irrelevant, midway through the proceedings. A particular stroke of genius was to stage the actual ritual outdoors, in Chinatown, this being the Seventh Month - apart from the sounds of other, similar, rituals being carried out in the vicinity, passers-by wandering up to have a look add a delightful verisimilitude.

In general, however, the play simply does not cohere. There are too many fragmented bits that add up to far less than the sum of their parts. A particularly annoying touch comes when the actors, in turn, step out of character to enact 'personal rituals' which range from self-flagellation to minor acts of arson, then proceed to ask the audience how they feel as witnesses. This is an obsessive dissection of an experience that can, after all, mean little to anyone except the participants themselves is irritating and pointless.

A lot of prudent editing would have saved the evening from descending into irrelevance and repetition. Two hours and twenty minutes without an interval is far too long, and many of the later scenes simply tell us things we already know. Allowing the actors to speak out of character fails to turn up any profound insights, but rather shows up how woolly their thinking is - Tang Wan Chin, for instance, tells us she believes that Taoism and Buddhism are 'quite mixed up'.

In the final segment of the ritual - conducted by actual Taoist priest Ang Wen Zhong - the family offers hell money to their ancestors, then encourages the audience to join in. The evening ends memorably with us companionably throwing notes onto the flames. Still, I couldn't help feeling the play could have been significantly improved had the director been persuaded to burn a large portion of the script as well.