>pulse. i am alive. by theatreworks
>reviewed by matthew lyon
>date: various 2003
>>>>>THE HEART OF THE MATTER
To avoid complete confusion later, I'll start with the basics: PULSE is an experimental series of interlinked plays, loosely based on an urban woman's diary. Its three instalments are supposed to explore different rhythms of existence, viz. fast, slow and medium, respectively. Scenes from one play are sometimes revisited in the others and are sometimes not: the texts for each play are similar but by no means identical. And finally, three actresses play the women in PULSE, with a different combination of two actresses starring in each instalment. There. If you get confused from now on, don't blame me.
I had intended to review each instalment of the PULSE series separately, lavishing upon all three parts the care and attention they individually deserved. Having seen all three, I now know that this was wrong-minded, not because the pieces don't deserve the attention (they do), but because they are really all (in)discrete parts of the same play. (If I knew anything at all about classical music, I would say something apposite about symphonies and movements at this point.) Consequently it would be an injustice to any of the instalments to consider it without the context provided by its siblings. Together they formed something very different from what they were alone: something musical or poetic, and unlike any theatre I can remember seeing.
Also, I'm not sure I can remember enough about the specifics of any of the instalments to discuss them separately with a sufficient degree of cogency. Because of how each overlapped with the others - because of the retrodden texts, the revisited visuals, and the revivified emotions - individual scenes or set pieces seemed to break off from the instalment they were housed in and to float about between the three, not particularly caring where they settled. Some got lost entirely and I have forgotten them. I took copious notes, so I daresay I could reconstruct the entire work if I put on my reading glasses, but that would be to deny the work its amorphousness and pliability of texture, both of which were integral to its overall effect, and neither of which thrived on minutiae.
So in the echoing shapelessness, what remained to distinguish fast from slow from medium? Certain scenes did manage to dig in their claws into both their instalment and one's memory, but mainly what remained was the unique mood of each piece, the differing qualities of lyricism, the differing degrees of urgency and the differing approaches of the respective performers.
Version one was labelled fast, and it seemed to me to be about being apart and together; about longing and being fulfilled (and these themes were echoed to lesser extents in the other two versions) - but that makes it seem too serious, when often it was playful.
In her solitude, the woman (Norlina Mohd) had time for relaxation, for stories and reflection. Often, she was animated in portraying these; sometimes she was leisurely. Importantly, she had the time and the desire to communicate, and this gave vibrancy to everything she said. She was shadowed by another woman (Nora Samosir) playing the id to her ego (though that is a simplification), playing a more ironic, jaded version of herself.
And so we flipped through the diary of her life, in which she had written and Samosir had commented in the margins. The reading was varied and interesting, but rarely engrossing. Certain scenes, however, stood out.
In one, Norlina recounted her mother's recipe for marital bliss: rice with vaginal secretions to taste. In another, she fantasised about depraved sex with a black toilet cleaner. These should have been shocking, if not for the sex in both, then for the (arguable) racism in the latter, and yet they were not - they came across simply as what one's brain occupies itself with when it has nothing more pressing to do, and what it would tell if it could.
>>'In PULSE, they
have shown how different similarities can be and how similar differences.
They have used the same texts to lift and to lower, and the same actors
to distance and invite. Their experiment has rarely seemed like an experiment,
but like a living, breathing, pulsing piece of theatre.'
An acteme is a moment or an image which lodges itself in your brain after you have seen a play and which seems to sum up the experience of watching it. I rarely find any of these, but the PULSE series gave me several. The acteme of the first instalment was a picture of Norlina lying in bed, reading, or writing to her lover overseas, idling away the morning and never quite getting up. There was no bed on stage, nor do I recall one being mentioned, but I can clearly see how the sheets are rumpled and how the morning light streams through a gap in the curtains. This is a powerful and specific image and I don't know how it got stuck in my head, but there was something in the way Kaylene Tan and Paul Rae's poetically heightened prose interacted both with the flickering colours on the TV screens comprising the stage and with the ambient soundscapes created in situ by a pair of Norwegian sound artists - there was something in the combination of all these that conspired to fashion more meanings than any element could have fashioned alone.
If the prevailing mood here was one of leisure, it was certainly not the only mood. An unforgettably jarring moment came when Norlina stood beneath a camera housed in the ceiling, eyes and head tilted towards it as it fed her image onto the chessboard of TV screens that made up the stage. The camera and lighting were configured in such a way as to forget the humanity of her face, showing it as a flesh-tinted skull in relief, emphasising its dryness and age. I thought the image out of synch with the rest of the piece at the time, and it was only later, when I had seen the darker version two (slow) that I understood its role in blending light with the later darkness. As with so many of the images or motifs of this series of plays, I wonder what those who had only seen one version would have made of it.
Version two was labelled slow. The woman here (Nora Samosir) was older, more deliberate, and more tired. But Samosir was not playing exactly the same woman as she had in the first version: where previously she had been ironic and detached, here her attempted detachment was revealed as a façade, hiding inner pain. The two scenes which showed this most clearly were, I believe, the strongest of the whole series.
In one, Samosir was seated in the audience and recounted, her voice full of warmth and release, the pleasure she took from trips to her masseuse. Back in version one, Norlina had done much the same with the same text, but whereas the earlier piece had seemed merely an enjoyable way to fill the woman's time, this later one was filled with a dire urgency. This was accomplished by having Karen Tan (playing Samosir's alter ego in the second version) silently, slowly collapsing into a foetal scream and giving the lie to everything Samosir said. She radiated pain. The ever-present soundscape hit a note on a knife-edge between a horror movie soundtrack and the kind of whale song muzak they play in spas. Never have I seen a more convincing portrayal of the terror of inertia, of the pain of not doing.
And the second instalment kept returning to this theme, powerfully each time it did. In another actemic moment as strong as the one just mentioned, Tan touched Samosir's womb as the latter spoke about the "tremendous potential" of that part of her body. Again, Norlina had done the same in version one, but back then the effect was lighter for it was clear that Norlina still had time to fulfil her potential; Samosir did not have that time, and Tan's gentle touches on her belly were those of a child trying to heal a broken thing. Again, I felt the horror of not doing.
I felt this horror even when Tan sat on the stage and implored the audience to watch an underage porn video; her voice was impossibly full of longing - of the need to do something, anything - and it was also full of the recognition that nothing in fact would be done. I was reminded of reading Baudelaire.
If there was a problem with this instalment it was that director Low Kee Hong had insisted too scrupulously on the idea of slow, perhaps because it was in the title. The piece did not seem naturally predisposed to be slow; instead it seemed urgent though immobile, so the slowness (largely manifested through forcing Samosir to speak with an uncomfortable ponderosity) appeared to be a simplistic superimposition.
In fact, I came to believe after seeing the third instalment that fast, medium and slow were not what the three versions should have been called. The first may have had moments of quick speech, yes, but more relevantly it was leisurely - the woman had more than enough time to do what was required of her. The second may have been slower in speech (though not in the overall speed of the scenes, I suspect), but more significantly it was urgent because the woman realised her time was running out. The third, it transpired, was businesslike, neutral and efficient because the woman (Karen Tan) had the right amount of time to do what she needed to do. And with all this in mind, I would relabel them "early", "late" and "punctual" respectively. Feel free to slap me for my presumption.
The third instalment was on its own terms the weakest. It was too level-headed; the emotional scope of the previous two instalments had been confined within too narrow a range and Karen Tan, who had been radiant in version two, now looked and sounded like an accountant: businesslike and with no personal reasons for telling us the things that she did. Occasionally, of course, she lifted her material - you can't keep a good actor down - but whenever she retrod scenes from the earlier versions (and this happened frequently) I was reminded of the life and colour they had had before, which they now sorely missed.
Compounding this was the fact that Norlina Mohd was underused. Whereas the previous versions had shown a symbiotic relationship between their respective pairs of women, this time the relationship was oppositional, and only really came into play at the end of the piece - for most of the piece, Tan was essentially performing a monologue. When Norlina finally started making her presence felt, it was to question Tan, as might a psychologist her patient. And whereas the patterns of the previous plays had not led me to expect this turn of events, I wouldn't have minded if I could have seen where it was all going. Instead, their exchanges were pedestrian, unmemorable, and seemed forced; and compared with what had gone before, their relationship seemed incongruously inorganic, like a TV set in a rose garden.
It turned out that all this was to lead up to a point where the play could end as it began, so that Tan at the end of version three was echoing the lines of Norlina at the start of version one - welcoming the audience and promising to perform for them. Well, I'm sure writing teachers everywhere concur that this kind of circularity is just the bees knees when it comes to style, but I found it cheap and, once again, superimposed. It was particularly unnecessary because even without a tacked-on ending, the third piece served as a framing device for the other two: as I mentioned earlier, only when I had seen the third piece was I fully able to note and define the differences between the earlier ones.
Little imperfections aside, I am considerably impressed by TheatreWorks' experiment with pace and mood. In PULSE, they have shown how different similarities can be and how similar differences. They have used the same texts to lift and to lower, and the same actors to distance and invite. They have created a series where each instalment works on its own terms and where each immeasurably helps the others. And most importantly, their experiment has rarely seemed like an experiment, but like a living, breathing, pulsing piece of theatre.