>THE GOOD CITIZEN by stage two

>reviewed by musa fazal

>date: 8 sep 2004
>time: 8pm
>venue: dbs arts centre
>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.


THE GOOD CITIZEN tells the story of architect and NMP, Cynthia Han. Recently widowed, her carefully constructed life comes crashing down around her when she learns that her virtuous late husband was bribing her Perm Sec. childhood sweetheart (Tony Pang) to gain business contracts from his Ministry. Worse, a good-looking reporter befriends her 'easy'-going sister, Jessie, and impressionable teenage daughter, Catherine, to gain an inside scoop and expose the dirty little family scandal. Other members of this sordid little plot include meddlesome old Auntie Bee, and Estella, the maid, whose mediocre existence is never important enough to warrant a physical presence onstage.

I shouldn't have liked this play at all. For one thing they played too many National Day songs. Especially that saccharine sweet Kit Chan melody 'Home'. Over and over.

And the set was decidedly posh. Upper middle class furnishings, polished antiques, and paintings on the wall. Very anti-Singaporean in a sense. We're used to the 5-room flat mise-en-scene - nearly every local sitcom is built around one. We might tolerate a modestly outlandish semi-d, but only if peopled with men in yellow rubber boots and women in spandex and garish tops. The well-manicured drawing room setting is a foreign invention, not suited for our local clime.

>>'I shouldn't have liked this play at all. For one thing they played too many National Day songs. Especially that saccharine sweet Kit Chan melody 'Home'. Over and over.'

Yet this was the stage for THE GOOD CITIZEN and, miraculously enough, it worked. Scene after scene was carefully stitched together, like the Fabric of a Nation, so that an entire play could unfold in a single well-decorated living room (by the way, how peculiar is it for a quilt to become a national symbol for a sweltering tropical country, but there you go. We're a people full of contradiction).

Part of the reason it worked was because the cast was strong all round. Amy Cheng turned in a curiously moving performance for a somewhat flat character (she played the wild, unruly sister - Cynthia Han's 'badder' half). Elizabeth Tan seemed at ease in her role as a whiny school-girl. Zahim Albakri put in yet another impressive, though understated performance. And Loke Loo Pin was her usual acerbic self, slicing her way through the more pretentious moments in the play like a Ginsu knife through butter. The weakest link was Koh Chieng Mun. Some blame goes to the playwright for this. Her character never really develops despite the twists in the plot, and she is always a step short of being a genuinely believable human being.

But the rest of the script is quite well written (apart from the end). The plot generates enough suspense to keep us focused, the dialogue is as smooth as a Max Brenner chocolate soufflé, and there is a nice smattering of humour to give the scenes a bit of pep. I especially liked the many amusing euphemisms for a female NMP, especially "high priestess" of the Prime Minister's Office. Of course some of the humour is distinctively Dick Lee e.g. Jessie has just come back from "some place that sounds like a drink", i.e. Bali. That's the kind of corny humour that is passable in a musical, because the lines have to rhyme somehow, and the music sounds good, but it sticks out in a play like this.

What is disappointing about the end is that, for such a carefully scripted piece (Dick Lee had to go through workshops for a year and a half with British dramaturg Stephen Clark), there is no sense of a resolution. The play appears to work itself into a frenzy, with Koh Chieng Mun flinging the objects of her life into a cardboard box (curiously the objects of her life seem to consist entirely of framed photos and cushions). But it all falls short of a cathartic climax. The living room looks too pristine. The furniture remains intact. This wife of a construction company czar is never fully deconstructed.

In the programme Dick Lee writes that one of the things he was trying to discover with this play was the soul of the good citizen. In the Last Days of Socrates, Plato writes of how his late mentor stood his ground, refusing to flee from his prison though sentenced to death for crimes he did not commit by an ungrateful Greek mob. A good citizen would not run, said Socrates. Cynthia Han displays no such stoicism in the face of public acrimony. She starts to pack as soon as the first cracks appear. And when she packs, she brings along her cushions. If this is the soul of citizenship in our country, we have a serious crisis on our hands.