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Production

Queen Ping

Company

Cake Theatre

Reviewer

Ng Yi-Sheng

Date

12/05/2006

Time

8.00pm

Place

The Esplanade Studio Theatre

Rating

***1/2

The Palace of Wisdom

Watching this play is like eating an entire buffalo. It's by no means easy, and afterwards, gorged on the sheer viscerality of it all, you might even feel a bit ill. But at the end of the meal, there's no way you can say you've been left unsatisfied.

You see, there's a monolithic, all-encompassing intensity to Queen Ping, looming and disturbing, frustrating to comprehend on a rational level, yet ultimately rewarding in its story of breaking away from filial institutions to live one's own life. I didn't know what to make of it at first - I was simply overwhelmed by the bizarreness of the scenarios and jarred by the apparent randomness of the disparate segments, which included spastically slurred renditions of Don't Give Up on Us Baby and recitals of the levels of Dante's Inferno. But in retrospect, I'm struck by the logic behind this weirdness, and the deeper implications in terms of dramatic language: Cake Theatre is producing a new way of communicating a story - one that still requires some modulation, yet is already powerful in its present incarnation.

Writer/director Natalie Hennedige hasn't primed her work to address a specific topic, as was typical of her work during her TNS days and of much of Singapore contemporary theatre (symptomatic of a politicised approach to drama). Rather, she's taking theatre back to its roots in myth, as can be seen in her dramatis personae of a deranged priest of a stepfather named Moses, a psychotic virgin nurse of a mother named Dewi, and a stolen baby daughter by the name of Rabbit. Superficially, they're acting out a story about growing up and breaking free from severely dysfunctional parents, but in fact the play operates on a level beyond the already twisted and absurdist farce of Christopher Durang's similarly themed Baby with the Bathwater. The names and careers of the characters push them into the realm of archetype, so that Dewi's tyranny of the household becomes much more than a domestic problem: she is the family, the state, and all establishment, and she is allied with her husband from the church. Rabbit's rebellion and escape from her clutches, with the help of her free-spirited artist boyfriend, Ape, is thus immediately apparent as more than a love story cliché: it is the very embodiment of the independent spirit who rejects institutionalisation.

Such an ambitiously mythic play could fail utterly, appearing pretentious or juvenile, if not for the strength of the cast, ballooning the mad characters into superhuman personalities. Noorlinah Mohamed was especially masterful in her portrayal of the innocent Rabbit: her effective recital of the lengthy Jamaica Kincaid text, What I Have Been Doing Lately, while curled on the floor, required particular effort and control of emotion. Nora Samosir's lofty rendition of the hellish Dewi was given a delicate counterpoint by Michael Corbidge's subtle yet deeply emotionally centred interpretation of Moses. Despite the warped nature of his character, he was able to evoke real empathy for his situation, trapped in middle age in a self-destructive parody of a family.

Hennedige's infinitely imaginative stage play further enhanced character and relationship, pushing actors to communicate while playing on the eponymous ping-pong table, or while engaging in bondage play with chains and leather. The visually arresting design concept and video work of Brian Gothong Tan also served to hold the pulsing segments together - nor was the national significance of the predominantly red and white colour scheme altogether lost on a Singaporean audience.

However, these advantages only added to an already swollen level of intensity, which made Queen Ping almost painful to witness, especially if one felt too distanced from the wild characters to empathise with their situation. It was for such reasons that the hilarious monologue by Rizman Putra as a clueless makcik maternity ward nurse was a welcome refreshment, as was Dewi and Moses's fetish role-play re-enactment of a scene from The Sound of Music, though the scene itself seemed somewhat extraneous. There's clearly a need for more study into how to balance the concentrated passion of stories like these with a lightness than can make the whole play more palatable to a disoriented audience.

More specific quibbles of mine include the following. I question the wisdom of including visual designer Brian Gothong Tan as a cast member - placed beside such professional performers, his inexperience in physical theatre inevitably showed, and even a largely silent role like his requires weighty stage presence to match up to the rest of the players. The use of BDSM toys effectively communicated the dysfunctional power relationships in the family, but seemed a slap in the face to friends of mine who are consensual practitioners of bondage play. And the opening of the play, with Dewi desperately hammering on the doors of the church, didn't engage me emotionally - Samosir played the part with far too much dignity and theatricality to forge a sympathetic attachment. Fortunately, the following scene, where Moses declaimed a heretical version of Genesis accompanied by a video montage, gripped my attention sufficiently to bring me into the world of the play.

Aside from this, there are few other cuts one would dare to suggest, for while tightening another play might feel like trimming away flab, to shorten this work might require sawing through raw muscle. And for all its over-the-top lunacy, certain moments of real emotional intimacy are often able to shine through. Rabbit's conversations with her parents, especially with her concerned father as she moves from innocence to disillusionment, are especially moving.

I'm going to pose a challenge to Cake Theatre. Can they stage a work like this, a feast for the eyes and the mind and the imagination, that consistently engages with the audience on a personal, heartfelt level, without veering too far off into abstraction and strangeness? Right now the work is so imaginatively overpowering that it becomes alienating to many a viewer - not everyone can ride the raw emotional wave that fuses together the expressionistic jigsaw of this piece. Yet it's important that the company stays true to the style that's made it unique among the multiplying theatre businesses of the city.

I'm impressed by Queen Ping as a work of excess - ambitious in its legendary scope, its stylisation, its stars and its heightened emotions. But the danger is, as I try to digest the many organs of the buffalo, the heart is almost lost.

Yi-Sheng discovered on opening night that he not only was friends with the director but also the designer and half the cast, so his view of the show is unavoidably biased.


"I'm impressed by Queen Ping as a work of excess - ambitious in its legendary scope, its stylisation, its stars and its heightened emotions"

Credits

Playwright and Director: Natalie Hennedige

Multimedia and Set Designer: Brian Gothong Tan

Lighting Designer: Suven Chan

Producer: Sharon Tang

Production Consultant: Joanna Goh

Technical Consultant: Patrick Wong

Stage Manager: Koo Ching Long

Assistant Stage Manager: Koo Ching Har

Cast: Michael Corbidge, Nora Samosir, Noorlinah Mohamed, Rizman Putra and Brian Gothong Tan

Previous Productions by Cake Theatre
Animal Vegetable Mineral (Musa Fazal)

More Reviews by Ng Yi-Sheng

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