>squeeze and squeezability by action theatre
>reviewed by matthew lyon
21 sep 2002
> 'Whatever That Is': **1/2
I had high hopes of 'Whatever That Is' by Huzir Sulaiman. The still-fresh memory of his masterful, lyrical Arts Fest commission, 'Occupation', and Claire Wong's equally commanding performance in it had put any of their future team-ups right at the top of my "to see" list.
Sadly, I was served rather meagre portions - which is not to say that 'Whatever That Is' was bad, just that it was in no way exceptional. To begin with, the piece was essentially a radio play - a ten-minute filler, perhaps, on the BBC World Service. A middle-aged couple talk about their son, the husband's work and the repercussions of his earlier affair. Everything is civilised; static. Indeed, save for a little contrived pacing around on the part of Wong, the actors never moved, having no earthly reason to do so. They were plainly there just to facilitate the dialogue.
Which was another problem, because while the script was perfectly serviceable and in some places clever, it never sparkled or glowed. Sulaiman's occasional attempts at more poetic speech rhythms, which had been so striking and beautiful in 'Occupation', were simply patterned prose here, and he hid beneath forced urbanity the fact that he had little to say.
It did not help that the actors could not provide the 'natural' conversation that the piece required, indeed, consisted of. Wong's presence and theatricality, an asset in many forms of theatre, proved a handicap here, and Chew treated his part like a particularly tricky elocution exercise and was audibly uncomfortable when called on to swear.
Nonetheless, if one closed one's eyes and listened, the words and conceits were appealing enough, and perhaps the greatest problem with 'Whatever That Is' was that it was not the potted masterpiece I had been expecting.
> 'Dinner for Two': *
Two people at a restaurant. One is smarmy, the other is smug. One shits and doesn't eat, the other eats and obsesses about orchids. One wants to go home, so do I. This is dinner for two, which means that motivation, context and all forms of meaning are distinctly uninvited.
If the point of this impenetrable, charmless playlet by Malaysian writer Leow Puay Tin was to make two decent actors (Jean Ng and Loong Seng Onn) look bad, then consider it a roaring success, but if it was supposed to do anything else, then I'm clueless as to what. The script was an oddments box of random, ugly lines, identically and gratingly delivered. Obsessions were raised and dropped unexplored, sex was suggested without chemistry and violence was invoked without bite - if this was stream-of-consciousness writing, then we'd all be better off asleep.
Meanwhile, the direction managed the impressive feat of being both arbitrary and obvious. The actors' faces were forced into glassy-eyed smirks, their voices into acid syrup and neither was allowed to waver. They were allowed to jump around and generally caress or attack each other, but it was not clear why, especially since it made them look like teenagers when they were theoretically supposed to be middle-aged.
If the play's rambling had any kind of focus, I suppose it was the difficulty of eating and the appeal defecation, and this is quite apt, because it made me lose my appetite and want to get it out of my system.
people at a restaurant. One is smarmy, the other is smug. One shits and
doesn't eat, the other eats and obsesses about orchids. One wants
to go home, so do I.'
Shortly after its publication, Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein' was criticised for its over-reliance on coincidence; Desmond Sim has created a monster.
Two people who would never normally talk to each other (an old grandmother and a young professional) end up talking to each other because… well, they just do, okay? They continue talking and we discover that the grandmother's eccentricities can be explained by her blaming herself for her grandson's death. How do we discover this? In a moment of silence, the professional takes out a pre-folded paper boat from his laptop case and floats it on a puddle of urine on the MRT seat, and then the grandmother says, "I taught him to fold his first paper boat." Naturally. And of course, it later transpires that the professional has just been made redundant and so is in the market for a wise but slightly mad old lady to tell him that everything will work out regardless.
In his recent award-winning 'Autumn Tomyam', Sim's penchant for cliché was redeemed by an interesting premise and viable characters. There are no such saviours here: the grandmother is a bag of tricks and ticks, the professional is hollow, and both are simply the devices of a very iffy plot. Wong and Chua Enlai try to fill in the gaps, but Wong looks like she needs a bigger stage while Chua has little room for manoeuvre.
According to the play's timing, a journey from Tanjong Pagar to Raffles Place takes about eight minutes. The journey should have been much shorter. So should the play.
Chua is back in the next item, David Henry Hwang's 'Trying to Find Chinatown'. He has much more scope here and seems to enjoy it. But he is oddly cast as an angry young street violinist, and his is an attitude far more feline than feral. He is joined by Mark Waite, playing to the groundlings with an accent many leagues east of his character's supposed Wisconsin origin and only slightly less odd than Chua's trans-Pacific drawl.
Hwang furnishes the pair with a clever little script that gift-wraps its racial polemic in light entertainment, but Chua is not an NY busker and Waite is not a Midwest backpacker and that, as they say, is that. Moreover, Waite whines his way through a solo coda that must have looked great on the page but hurts the ears in the telling. The direction does not get in the way, but this one is probably better off read.
How very, very strange. Believing that the Ng-Loong pairing could not possibly produce anything worse than 'Dinner for Two', I was to be unpleasantly surprised - although here the problem was less with the script than with direction that was visionary in its awfulness. Jit treated what is essentially a Middle-American bucolic (an old woman plants seeds; an old man complains; the sun sets) to lashings of silver tinsel, melodramatic shouting and choreography that would send its geriatric protagonists off looking for hip replacements. The words fabulous and fantastic may be synonyms, but fable and fantasy are not, and this production seemed to confuse the two. A lasting image lingers: after a supposedly touching dénouement, Ng and Loong wade off into the sunset with half a metre of the accumulated tinsel grasping at their legs like the creature from the glitter lagoon. Avoid.
> 'The Office': ****1/2
But at last, there was a reward. About thirty seconds into 'The Office' by American Kate Hoffower, it became clear that everything that was so desperately missing from the earlier plays was to be found here in abundance. Thoranisorn Pitikul's wire grid and metal set - which had been a touch too impersonal for some of the earlier plays - caught the mood of professional sterility with both hands; Jit's direction achieved a focus while maintaining its energy; Wong's larger-than-life approach got the kind of role it was begging for; and Ng's mime skills were given appropriate and glorious rein.
There is no point in trying to communicate how funny this play was, save to say that I started laughing in the first minute and only stopped, along with the rest of the audience, well after the last. And what is particularly satisfying is that the laughter came not only from the script - well paced, insightful and quirky - it also came from some inspired direction and three impeccable performances.
Throwing pencils around may not seem like the world's most captivating spectator sport, but Wong, Ng and Amber Simon as terminally bored office workers managed this ingenious directorial conceit with such desperate élan that one could not look away or keep from laughing. Their faces, too, were perfect: Wong's a harried, hysterical dormouse; Simon's a frenzied Barbie doll and Ng's a puckish genie.
If there was any flaw in this remarkable vignette, it was that the controlled chaos of the onstage action was so funny it was difficult to concentrate on the equally brilliant words - though they were very clearly delivered - meaning that perhaps a little of the script's potential for poignancy was lost - but this is akin to saying that the menu looks so good, it's a shame you can't eat all of it.
I've managed to get back to my original food analogy. If this were a restaurant
review, I'd be advising people to turn up only for dessert, but since
there is no interval, that's not an option. As it is, the earlier courses
just aren't worth the tedious chewing, and it remains a puzzle how the
ACTION crew, usually reliable for good, wholesome fare, could serve up
so much stuff half-baked.