>machine by theatreworks

>reviewed by matthew lyon

>date: 16 mar 2002
>time: 8pm
>venue: the black box, fort canning
>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.


Tan Tarn How's latest playwriting venture tells the story of two itinerant repairmen, Rex and Heng - one good with words and the other good with his hands - who arrive unexpectedly at the flat of friends, Kim and Lina, and proceed, as one does, to fix their washing machine.

But that's not all they fix. In an increasingly tangled web of lies and half-lies, coupled with some subtle excavations of the men and women's characters and some inconclusive probing into their pasts, the one thing that becomes clear is that each man possesses the skills to make one of the women feel whole, but also to make her feel empty: to fix her and also to break her apart.

>>'The set... was an ode to the hinge and castor... it turned out out be so versatile it should have been sponsored by Lego.'

Everybody who has seen this play has ended up talking about the set, and rightly so, as it was an ode to the hinge and castor. Constructed out of translucent blue plastic (which accentuated the air of sterility that the dialogue supplied), it turned out to be so versatile it should have been sponsored by Lego. Each time the scene changed, a bevy of stage hands - so well-trained they might have been machines themselves - would swing a wall from one side of the stage to the other and thus create a different view of the room, or remove a partition to reveal an area the audience hadn't suspected existed.

This versatility gave the play an almost televisual element, as it seemed there might be multiple cameras set up to monitor the various rooms, a la Big Brother. Director Jeremiah Choy often made incisive use of this factor, fuelling the sense of voyeurism by positioning his actors on the threshold between two rooms so that they seemed unsure whether to come in or go out and indeed, whether they were being watched. This led to some genuinely eerie moments.

But Choy's staging was not without foible. Whereas he was able to capture what is best about television in his better scenes, in his worst, he dredged the depths of channel five. Actors inexplicably faced away from each other in the middle of conversations, forming shapes that gave us geometry when we wanted chemistry, and moreover, this sat uncomfortably with the naturalism of the dialogue. The 'walk to the imaginary window' technique was somewhat overused (and doesn't 'Days of Our Lives' have the copyright on that, anyway); and a scene where Heng toyed ineffectually with the innards of the washing machine miles away from where the appliance itself actually resided, just so the audience could see him better, revealed a lack of truth and of imagination.

As for the acting, Janice Koh played Lina with a bitchy and vivacious élan that was all the more impressive for being able to melt away in her more vulnerable scenes. She was also the most comfortable with the peculiarly western rhythms of Tan's dialogue, and was the only cast member able to live in her lines, producing them with a naturalness and spontaneity that made them real and made her real in turn.

Karen Tan was, by contrast, rather more perceptibly acting - although this can hardly be labelled a criticism, since she's very good at it. I must admit that it took me a while at the start to reconcile her more self-conscious approach with Koh's unaffected one, but by the end, she had convinced me enough that I could feel her need and shame and guilt from across the auditorium.

Low Kee Hong possessed the suavity and some of the menace that his smooth operator suit-type required, but not the magnetism to make his scenes with the women believable. Moreover, he had significant problems with the timing of Tan's somewhat Beckettian dialogue, especially its interruptions and almost stichomythic, half-aborted exchanges - the end result being that he looked like he hadn't learnt his lines properly.

And Casey Lim as "good with his hands" Heng was a solid, dependable presence, whose autistic pauses mostly hinted at underlying conflicts, but occasionally parodied themselves. An example of this came in a scene at the end of the play, when Heng was leaving Karen Tan's Kim. The dialogue went like this:

Kim: "Don't go."
(Long pause)
Heng: "I have to."
(Extremely long pause)
Heng: "I can't."

If intended as a parody, this was, I daresay, a very clever scene; but I suspect that wasn't the intention at all and it was, in fact, a rather uncomfortable lapse on the parts of all concerned.

This scene was, however, very far from the norm, and overall I was glad to have seen an intellectually impressive and thought-provoking play that refused to take the easy options of cheap emotions or abstract plotting, and succeeded in taking itself seriously, and taking the audience along for the ride.