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Production

The Art of War

Company

Lars Otterstedt and Ramesh Meyyappan

Reviewer

Ng Yi-Sheng

Date

13/05/2006

Time

8.00pm

Place

The Drama Centre Black Box

Rating

***1/2

Exploding Mimes

After a slow, if amusing run-up, this show rocked. Ramesh Meyyappan, who for years has been one of the most accomplished mime actors in Singapore, is now breaking some truly interesting ground in his field. His team, which includes director Wendy Ng, as well as fellow deaf actor Lars Otterstedt, invited from Sweden, has collaborated to create a piece that portrays the drama of growing up male in a competitive and hierarchically governed society. It's mime theatre that examines and pathologises our everyday rituals - and, quite crucially, it's actually entertaining.

Over the course of an hour, the audience watched Ramesh and Lars morph through a fluent succession of masculine roles, including sons, gang members, soldiers, players and fathers, each gracefully illustrated with only a modicum of props and some wonderfully disciplined body movement. For the sake of the hearing audience, sound designer Darren Ng provided an amazing live sonic backdrop to the piece, creating ambience and clarifying action, including a slick series of effects to accentuate body blows - the punches and crunches that proliferated with the violence of the play's subject matter.

The two actors stuck to fairly familiar mime territory in the first scene as they became little boys playing with toy soldiers, warring with each other for possession of the largest of the action figures. Having some familiarity with the use of mime in children's theatre, I was only mildly entertained, even when the squabbles developed into full-blown clownery and the two boys played at chainsawing off each other's limbs and emptying their brain pans - though a demonstration of superiority by one boy's growing a gargantuan penis indicated that we were going a little beyond the borders of juvenile drama.

Momentum built across the following scenes, reaching a five-star peak in the lounge bar scene when the two played friends competing against one another in drink, darts and women. The device of dividing this scene into segments through an ever-increasing number of vodka shots was extremely effective: as the night wore on, we could see the men's inner animals rearing their heads, striving more and more openly for supremacy until an actual brawl broke out over their support for rival soccer teams. The apparent continuation of Ramesh's underdog character into the next scenes grippingly continued this theme, as it illustrated how status abuse at work could be channeled into spousal abuse, as the character began to embrace a cult of male violence that he began to teach to his son. While this wasn't quite the right note to end on, the reprise of the first scene as an ending didn't quite work either, diffusing the energy of the earlier scenes without giving it a satisfactory resolution.

I'm especially impressed with the execution of the play - the outrageous facial expressions of Lars were particularly memorable, though both actors displayed remarkable and at times hilarious physical contortions. More crucially, there were only one or two moments when the mimed action mystified me - Ramesh's transformation into a priest to diminish Lars' penis being one such occasion. Even costume changes were largely eschewed - the simple addition of a jacket or tie demonstrated a change in status, and the stylised process of putting on these items was also incorporated into the action, maintaining the smooth pacing of the show. One unfortunate side-effect of this streamlining was that the piece lasted all of 50 minutes - not quite enough to feel like a good evening out, in my opinion.

What was missing for me in this show was the sense of a real discussion of ideas. While the life cycle of the competitive, violent male was portrayed, there wasn't much of a real exploration of its nuances and complexities, or really a three-dimensional focus on any one character (though Ramesh was typically at the mercy of the more dominant Lars, this arrangement seemed more of a casting decision than the projection of the journey of a consistent character through life). This is a lot to demand of two actors who use completely different systems of sign language, and it's even more to demand of a performance devised over only two weeks. But those are my standards for a satisfying play.

This is not, after all, the first time that mime has been used to address serious topics in our theatre. Li Xie recently used mime to address the issue of war in Errorism - Flowers of Evil. But what Ramesh does which is truly unique here is to combine the accessible, laugh-a-minute aspect of mime with hard-hitting themes - balancing the horror of war with the buffoonery of fistfights over sports matches, yet recognising their common root in the masculine ego. It's only to be hoped that he can develop this vein further, beyond the traditional constraints of speechless drama, to stand neck and neck with the more vocal pieces of our most established companies here.

On consideration, I'm unsure if I'm overemphasising Meyyappan's role in the formation of this play. If anyone involved in the production finds it necessary to correct me, please add a comment.


"What is truly unique here is the combination of the accessible, laugh-a-minute aspect of mime with hard-hitting themes"

Credits

Director: Wendy Ng

Lighting Designer: Tony Kam

Sound Designer: Darren Ng

Cast: Ramesh Meyyappan, and Lars Otterstedt

Previous Productions by Ramesh Meyyappan
This Side Up (Matthew Lyon)
The Tell-Tale Heart and The Masque of the Red Death (Kenneth Kwok)
Mistero Buffo and A Woman Alone (Kenneth Kwok)

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.