Trying to Find Proof
Let's get the timeline straight.
2002: as part of a mixed bill entitled Squeeze and Squeezability, Krishen Jit directs for ACTION Theatre David Henry Hwang's short play, Trying to Find Chinatown, in which two complete strangers happen to meet and share their opposing views on modern Chinese identity.
Also 2002: Krishen Jit directs for ACTION Theatre a production of David Auburn's Proof, a play about a woman coming to terms with the death of her father, a famous mathematician.
2005: as part of a double bill entitled Roman Tam & The 3 Bears, Krishen Jit directs for ACTION Theatre Pek Siok Lian's short play, Between Chinas, in which two complete strangers happen to meet and share their opposing views on modern Chinese identity.
Also 2005: Krishen Jit directs for ACTION Theatre a production of Jean Tay's Everything But The Brain, a play about a woman coming to terms with the death of her father, a famous physicist.
Perhaps it's a three-year cycle and we'll get the same thing again in 2008...
There were differences, though, among the similarities: scriptwise, Pek's effort was considerably weaker than Hwang's, whereas Tay's piece was (IMHO) even stronger than Auburn's Tony and Pulitzer winner. And when it comes to direction, Jit had lots of new tricks up his sleeve - though I'd have preferred him to keep them there.
In Pek Siok Lian's Between Chinas, American-born Chinese James (played by Brendon Fernandez) is a young backpacker visiting Hong Kong to discover his roots. While taking photos of the statue of George VI in the Botanical Gardens, he comes across Chan, a middle-aged local, who is practising t'ai chi nearby. In the way that people do when they are in a short play, they strike up a conversation, which turns into an argument, which turns back into a conversation. James, you see, would prefer that Hong Kong not honour a colonialist with a statue and would instead give the plinth to Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-sen. Chan is happy with King George. As a humane gesture to prevent the audience dying of boredom, they settle on Cantopop balladeer, Roman Tam.
Yes, Between Chinas was extremely boring. This is largely because it wasn't really a play so much as a newspaper article - the kind that lives on the centrefold of broadsheets and later gets put in a book if the columnist becomes famous. (This shouldn't come as a surprise because Pek is a journalist by profession.) And in fact, I probably would have enjoyed the piece in article form - it has an interesting premise and is well-researched - but as a play it suffered from crippling superfluity: it simply did not need characters, dialogue or blocking, and the imposition of these elements trebled its running time.
To his credit, director Jit seemed to realise this. He wrestled the play from the page to the stage, whipping its poor, inert characters into action. He had seemingly electrified the floor beneath Brendon Fernandez's character so that he could never stop moving and would lend the play some momentum. He turned up the volume on the jaunty piano concerto to which Chew's character was t'ai chi-ing so that it clashed with the dialogue, forcing the actors to speak louder and adding a feeling of tension. He gave us something to look at by projecting stills of whatever the characters were talking about onto a screen at the back. It was a valiant and exhausting effort, but it was all in vain: the play remained utterly untheatrical.
The actors couldn't help either, but you can't blame them because they didn't really have any characters. No, all they had was accents, and, for the record, Fernandez's all-American frat boy was slightly strained, while Chew's Hong Kong uncle was over the top but endearing.
David Henry Hwang's Trying to Find Chinatown largely overcame the same set of problems Between Chinas faced because Hwang made his piece short, punchy and (when it's done right) poetic. Pek's drawn-out, anaemic prose just can't compete.
Which leaves us with Everything But The Brain by Jean Tay. It's here that I must declare a conflict of interest. Back in 2001, Jean and I participated in The Necessary Stage's Playwrights' Cove project, mentored by Haresh Sharma. During the course of the programme, I wrote something that has since been deservedly forgotten and Jean wrote Brain. I hated her for it.
Even the first draft of her play was intimidatingly intelligent. You'd think it would be enough to base your play on Einstein's theory of relativity: "Not just anyone could have written this," you'd say, and smugly set down your pen, confident that teacher would give you full marks. But Jean was not satisfied with this. She went further, piling metaphor upon metaphor, image upon image, but always making sure that her ideas linked together and fed each other - that none of them stood jutting and awkward. And then she went further still: she refused to let her play be a brittle thing built only of ideas, so she gave it characters with needs and fears, she gave it resonance, she gave it theatricality.
Consider: a train to Malacca, the theory of relativity, Tupperware, the three bears and the big bad wolf, a stroke of the hair, a stroke of the brain... These things should not coexist; still less should they create meanings from each other, should they build together pain and poignancy. But Tay's script, especially in this later, tighter draft, is a thing of intricate complexity and compelling lucidity. It is a fibre-optic lattice, a glowing net of dreams.
So yes, I'm jealous. I'm also disappointed. I've waited four years to see Everything But The Brain performed, and I'm afraid I'll have to wait a little longer to see it get the production it deserves.
This isn't the fault of the actors. Pam Oei is commendable as Elaine, a singleton teacher watching her father die. She transmits a cynical intelligence, borne of loneliness and diffidence, which warns her not to trust her dreams of better things. And when, in flashbacks, she plays Elaine as a child, we see all the energy and spunk the years have cost her and we feel for her diminishment.
Gerald Chew as her physics professor father is the best I have seen him. We meet a once-brilliant man made recalcitrant by age and disappointment; a man who counts the cost of compromise in blood and fiercely guards his dignity from the ravages of a stroke. I have often thought Chew stiff in the past, but here he makes stiffness a virtue - and then, when his character is close to death and all that remains is pain and incomprehension, he hints that there is raw tissue beneath his shell.
Complementing the two leads, Brendon Fernandez is perfectly cast as a handsome young doctor, and Koh Chieng Mun, Chermaine Ang and Filomar Tariao as an ursine chorus are spirited, enthusiastic, and clearly doing what the director asked of them.
It's just that he often asked the wrong thing. Jit took every opportunity to inject distracting business into a script that already had its fair share of action set pieces. It seemed Elaine couldn't speak to anyone without her three chorus members cavorting around, pulling faces and cluttering the already cramped stage of ACTION Theatre's tiny Room Upstairs. Granted, there were times when this was the right approach, but there were also times when the chorus should have supplied drama, not pantomime, and others when it probably shouldn't have been onstage at all.
But Jit seemed unable to perceive any such variations in the script, treating it all as an exercise in overstatement. An example: Oei and Fernandez share an instant attraction in the script, but she is shy and he is professional; they do not act on it. Jit ignored the characters' realities in favour of his own, which involved red lighting and fake orgasms. Such broad and lurid brushstrokes meant that he sacrificed most of the play's subtlety, poignancy and charm for at best a few cheap laughs and at worst unfocused grotesquerie.
It's a shame, because if we go back to 2002 (and the start of this review), Jit's production of Proof showed a steady hand and a willingness to trust the script. The same applies whenever I've seen him tackle big name plays (Emily of Emerald Hill, Iron, The Visit of the Tai Tai). If only he had extended the same courtesies towards this new play which, for all that it lacks awards, is smarter, funnier and more affecting than any of those above.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /