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Production

Twisted

Twisted picture 2

Company

The Finger Players

Reviewer

Matthew Lyon

Date

16/10/2005

The Esplanade

Time

3.00pm

Place

The Esplanade Theatre Studio

Rating

***1/2

Wistful, Not Twistful

Twisted by The Finger Players was billed as "Singapore's first puppet performance for adults." But Puppetry of the Penis this was not, nor even Avenue Q. Instead, the show seemed almost like a children's fable - a simple bedtime story, perhaps, about "a man who keeps falling into the same hole his entire lifetime" (programme notes).

The foreground of the set pretty much told this story even without any puppets. It consisted of a wide platform on the left, a narrow but deep depression (the hole) in the middle, and then a higher platform on the right. The idea was that in each scene, the man would traverse the wide area on the left, temporarily get stuck in the hole, and then climb out of it and continue on his way. In its simplest version, this was exactly what happened - five times. In each scene we saw a new puppet depicting the protagonist at a different stage in his life. All were simple rod puppets, all small but of slightly varying sizes and appearances according to the protagonist's age, and all were manipulated by one or two puppeteers in full view of the audience. Each time, we saw the puppet presented with a new experience, fail in some way to accept it, and then pick itself up and move on. We started with a toddler puppet who learns to play, then a schoolboy who learns to fear, a teenager who learns to love, a middle-aged man who learns to cope with bereavement, and finally an old man who learns to accept his own death.

In each of these five simple narratives there were tiny moments of magic. The toddler plays with a bouncing ball and marvels as it takes him flying; the schoolboy cowers in terror from a monster his rage has unleashed; the teenager reads a letter from his beloved and shudders with awe and gratitude as it reveals she loves him as violently as he loves her. The magic of these moments was heightened by Darren Ng's lush piano score, which he played live. In the lighter, more whimsical sections of the play, Ng's music was like being bathed in gentle light, or like a mother sitting by a child's bedside, gently waking him; and in the darker or more intense sections, it was like being lost in a mysterious forest. Yet even at its darkest, the music retained a sense of innocence, a sense of security. This was the same innocence one could see in the puppets' trusting, black-button eyes - in the way they looked up questioningly at their puppeteers; and it was the same security one could see when these gentle puppeteer-gods reached down to lend their troubled children a hand. No one could ever truly become lost in this forest - there would always be a grown-up watching out for us - and it was this sense that nothing could go really wrong that made the performance seem like a children's fairytale and belied its "adult" publicity.

Only one scene in the main puppet narrative came close to being "adult". It becomes clear that the middle-aged man puppet has lost his partner, and, in his grief, he rips off the front of his face to reveal bloody eye sockets, ear holes and nasal cavity. This comes as a shock (the audience audibly gasped) and it would certainly be disturbing to small children, but still, the idea of bereavement is presented rather than explored and the scene follows the same simple pattern as the others, with the man recovering at the end. Apart from that one visceral moment, the scene is benign, lulling almost, like a bedtime story.

A greater problem, though, with the main narrative was not its simplicity, it was its repetitiveness. Five times is too often to tell the same story, even if each iteration is differentiated by a unique gimmick. And, by the time we got to the old man puppet, it became clear that the production team had run out of ideas. The old man just went through the motions of crossing the stage and falling into the hole without doing anything interesting or new.

The main narrative was interspersed with shorter shadow-puppetry segments projected on to a screen at the back of the stage. These segments proved slightly more adult and more varied, though they also devolved somewhat towards the end.

Most of the shadow segments revolved around a simple, silhouetted finger puppet whose journey loosely paralleled that of the rod-puppet protagonist. The most interesting of these scenes showed the finger puppet navigating a cityscape which moved as if it were being filmed by an airborne camera. The puppet climbs ladders and jumps across rooftops, straining to reach a godly hand which hovers just out of reach. Eventually, when the puppet reaches the edge of the last roof, it makes a leap of faith and, even though this shadow world is more unstable and starker than the gentle, earth-toned world of the main narrative, we still expect the godly hand to catch the puppet, just as the puppeteer-gods have assisted their wards before. But our expectations are confounded: the hand disappears, and the puppet falls, broken, to the ground. This is one of the few truly adult moments of the play; one of the few times we believe that we are on our own in a dangerous world with no one looking out for us. It is also one of the few times we are required to think. Why is the puppet chasing the hand? Is it mental illness? Disappointment with the real world? A metaphor for a misspent life? And why doesn't the hand catch her? The play could have done with more of such provocative scenes.

But perhaps the best scene of the play didn't even use puppets - it just used hands. We see two hands (both belonging to Ong Kian Sin) silhouetted on the back screen. Through some Hermetic process, Ong endows his hands with emotions, needs and frailties. He makes them love one another and makes one of them love too strongly, so strongly that the other is frightened and retreats. He teaches his hands fear and loss and subtler shadings of pain: self-blame, hope, disillusionment. Not only is this scene powerful and moving on its own terms, it also provides a perfect dark mirror to the journey of the teenage rod puppet who loves with violence. Through this mirror we see that he will remain in his hole of grief far longer than his narrative portrays, and we feel more strongly for his pain.

Sadly, many of the shadow segments were rather more abstract and less satisfying, and most were anchored by a text, projected on the screen and also printed in the programme, which (again) paralleled the main narrative but which fell far short of the poetry it was trying to achieve.

And, much worse, there was a whole other narrative which was utterly unnecessary. In it, Tan Beng Tian, the play's only human actor, yet again paralleled the main growing older narrative, this time from a female perspective. Tan did a respectable job, but the only thing this thread added to the production was the spoken word, and since that spoken word did no more than repeat a story that was also being told in three other forms, it just felt flabby. It didn't help that this thread contained none of the flashes of magic that lit up the rest of the play.

All in all, while Twisted was a pleasing, accomplished and occasionally striking production, it suffered from bloat and repetition, and failed to live up to its title as it seemed to be aiming at an audience of, if not children, then of extremely nostalgic adults. It certainly suffers by comparison to April's miraculous Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, but since the same is true of every other play I've seen in the last five years, that shouldn't be taken as much of a criticism. With a bit of tweaking, Twisted could be great, and even without, it serves as more evidence that The Finger Players are capable of some of the most interesting theatre around.


"With a bit of tweaking, Twisted could be great, and even without, it serves as more evidence that The Finger Players are capable of some of the most interesting theatre around"

Credits

Created and performed by: Ong Kian Sin, Tan Beng Tian and Tan Wan Sze

Featuring: Koh Leng Leng

Set Designer: Oliver Chong

Lighting Designer: Lim Woan Wen

Sound Designer: Darren Ng

Mandarin text written by: Ong Kian Sin

English translation written by: Chong Tze Chien

Stage Manager: Evelyn Chia

More Reviews of Productions by The Finger Players

More Reviews by Matthew Lyon

Ratings out of 5, based on Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent / Rapturous;
**** = Crystal / Appreciative; *** = Transmitted / Thoughtful; ** = Vague / Unsatisfied; * = Uncommunicated / Mystified.