Cantopop King Meets Physics Major
Roman Tam & The 3 Bears was a double-bill directed by Krishen Jit, beginning with Between Chinas, written by Pek Siok Lian, and followed by Everything But The Brain, written by Jean Tay.
Between Chinas begins promisingly, in a park in Hong Kong where an old man is in the midst of his t'ai chi routine when his morning reverie is rudely interrupted by a young American-Born Chinese tourist with issues. They get into a debate on the statue of King George VI in the park and the Hong Kong authorities' decision to replace the statue with one of Sun Yat-sen. The American thinks Sun a suitably democratic hero for the Chinese people and by extension, an appropriate national symbol for Hong Kong. The old man, amusingly enough, thinks the Cantopop singer Roman Tam is a more appropriate icon.
With such a strong dash of irony inherent in the plot, it is a curious thing that this play fails to deliver. This could have been a genuinely intelligent commentary on the complexities of the Chinese identity and the cultural biases that influence our perceptions of what makes an icon. But like the feeling of nausea that surfaces midway through a ferry ride to Bintan, one starts to sense as the play progresses that the main reason it fails to reach the heights of its ambition is that the writing is just not very good.
The characters never ripen beyond the two dimensions we know of them at the very outset of the play. The American is typically American, and the old man typically obstinate. The characters become mouthpieces of the playwright in a kind of Socratic dialogue, rather than people in their own right.
There are occasional moments of wit in the play - the line "you can't take the Hong Kong out of a Cantonese" is milked for all it's worth. But when the lights dim and the characters launch into what appears to be a serious tribute to the diaspora of Chinese emigrants that "launched a thousand ships and spawned a thousand restaurants", the attempt at pseudo-philosophy is jarring and discomforting.
The actors cannot save the script. Brendon Fernandez is a gifted performer, but his American accent is a little strange round the edges, and it is just odd that ACTION Theatre could not muster up an American Chinese to play his part given how many of them there are in this country. Gerald Chew does a better Hong Kong accent, but I would have thought his character needed a paunch and less hair.
It is also disappointing that this play has almost nothing of an ending with the characters shaking hands and seeming to just come round to each other's perspective - a resolution that packs about as much punch as barley water.
Jean Tay's Everything But The Brain is a whole island apart; an oasis of intelligence. The plot is deceptively simple. Elaine Lim is a Physics teacher, much-loved by her students, single at 36, with a father whose health deteriorates as a result of a succession of strokes. But the beauty of the play is in the writing, and the writing soars above the banality of a Hallmark Channel tear jerker, through a clever use of the metaphor of time.
Just as "time speeds up, slows down, stands still and collapses", so too vignettes of Elaine's life dash back and forth, rewinding and fast-forwarding in quick succession. The 10 months and 29 days that it takes for her father to die from the onset of his first stroke are compressed into an hour and a half on stage. Papa Bear, Mama Bear and Baby Bear surface from her subconscious and become a kind of Greek chorus helping Elaine to narrate the events of her life. The dots connect later in the play when we learn that the three bears were used by her father to explain the theory of relativity when she was a wee tot while they were on a train ride to Malacca to meet Elaine's mother, and it was this tale that gripped her imagination and made her grow up to love Physics.
The play is jam packed with feisty humour. When the three bears come out in full jester's gear, Elaine declares: "If you expect me to don a wig, and call me Goldilocks, think again." Elaine's insecurities at being single for too long are explained by comparing women to wine: "They get older with age, but if you wait too long, they turn into vinegar." And Elaine's discovery that the young doctor she has a crush on is nine years younger than herself, and worse, one of her former students, is tragicomedy at its best.
Pam Oei as Elaine is magic on stage. Her role requires her, within moments, to sweep from playing a single woman with a crush on the young doctor looking after her father to a disgruntled little girl throwing a tantrum. She does this effortlessly, and has that rare quality only the best actors have, to make you feel as if she were performing just for you. Gerald Chew who plays Elaine's father puts in a moving speech on the debilitating effects of disease and old age, but generally lacks the gravitas of more able performers like Lim Kay Tong. Brendon Fernandez carries his lover boy role well, as do the three Bears who are a riot of fun and never allow the pace of the play to sag.
Overall Jean Tay's play brims with all of the infectious, high-octane energy of a Haresh Sharma classic, but with a tighter control of form and an exceptional mastery of language. Einstein once said: "Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That's relativity." The same could be said, one thinks, about watching a bad play and a good play, respectively.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /