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Production

The Campaign to Confer the Public Service...

Company

W!ld Rice

Reviewer

Ng Yi-Sheng

Date

12/08/2006

Time

8.00pm

Place

The Drama Centre

Rating

***1/2

Imbalance of Power

Christ. This was one of the most lopsided plays I've ever had the luck to see. Act one was unfocused, riddled with irrelevant parodies and poorly performed (**1/2) - but act two was fantastic; one of the best satires of Singapore governance I've witnessed, both moving and incisive (****1/2).

Ironically, this imbalance was the result of Eleanor Wong's division of the play into exact, mirroring halves. Act one centres on the struggles of David Lee, the student activist attempting to muster support for the eponymous campaign. David was played by Rodney Oliveiro, while all supporting characters were played by Pam Oei. Act two told the tale of rising civil servant Clara Tang (aka 2DS), who performs damage control in the wake of David's mysterious death. Clara was performed by Oei; all supporting characters were Oliveiro's provenance.

Such a yin-yang construction requires strong actors of roughly equal ability. As anyone who's watched Dim Sum Dollies knows, Pam Oei is a phenomenal talent - Rodney Oliveiro, sadly, is less remarkable. Throughout act one, he failed to win us over with the wide-eyed idealism of his character. The primacy of his role exposed his habit of saying different lines with exactly the same tonal stresses. And Pam's countless cameos, appearing as multiethnic receptionists and talk-show hostesses, repeatedly upstaged Oliveiro's portrayal of his hapless character, unable to find support for his campaign.

But Oliveiro's casting in itself didn't cause the failure of the first act - the playwright hadn't quite developed enough of a specific emotional background for him to explore, allowing him to function as an everyman with a sudden interest in self-expression. Barely a minute would pass without a cheap joke, of which I'll give you three examples: David runs the Association of Students for Self-expression (ASS); he attempts to reach JBJ through the inexplicably New-Agey podcast of the Mrs Brown Show; and also through a so-bad-it's-not-really-funny Singapore Idol audition. Even Oei couldn't do much with the character of David's best friend, "the faithful, feisty vice-president of ASS", whose eccentric one-liners wore thin with the audience, appearing simply as pathetic attempts at humour.

Plus, as you can see from Boon Chan's review, I wasn't the only one in the house who was pissed that it was a fictional JBJ, not the politician, who was the focus of David's campaign in the first act. Most of us bought tickets with the clear expectation of some engagement with the life of Joshua B Jeyaratnam himself - not for a feature on the fictional Mr JB who runs a Wildlife Preservation group (WP, hyuk-hyuk) to protect the endangered Buangkok white elephant. Sure, this might have been necessary to obtain approval for the play from MDA, but was it really necessary to have all these references to "the other Mr JBJ" whom everyone thinks is a figure to be ignored at all costs?

It wasn't all bad - there was some cartoonish entertainment in David's attention-seeking antics for his campaign, and some worthy insight into the paranoia of Singaporeans when confronted by the possibility of political surveillance. One just expects better from the playwright who gave us Singapore's great trilogy of lesbian drama.

So this reviewer was pleasantly surprised after the intermission to find that act two wasn't just improved - it was a whole other play: less flippant in mood, more well-defined in character construction and development, but no less entertaining. Oei delivered a superb interpretation of the morally ambiguous civil servant Clara Tang, whom the audience couldn't quite help liking for not being as evil and narrow-minded as everyone else in the civil service. The identity of JBJ himself no longer mattered - now, the audience was fixated on the means whereby Clara (known to all civil servants as 2DS) navigated the system of intrigue that surrounded a governmental cover-up. Clara's emotional journey was especially well-crafted - in between the political commentary, we came to understand her past as a young radical leftist, her estranged relationship with her senior civil servant father whom everyone knew better than her, and her tortured romance with an ex-young-PAP journalist now committed to free speech. Pam never overplayed her emotions, making us ache all the more at her repression and her struggle, letting us only imagine what she must have been like in her youth, before her ideals atrophied.

Oliveiro, surprisingly, more than redeemed himself by playing a host of supporting characters - some of these, like the insecure Police DSP and the uppity Permanent Secretary, were hilarious caricatures, whereas some, like Clara's on-and-off boyfriend, were fully fleshed out, three-dimensional figures. The variety of personalities conjured up is demonstration of the actor's range - the audience roared in laughter at Eddie Bambang Hariyanto, a flaming send-up of Ong Keng Sen, but was chilled by his menacing appearance as "The Old Man", an unspecified character who stood only in the shadows with high connections in Intelligence and Security. Perhaps Oliveiro has it in him to become an actor of excellence - if only he could bring to a leading character the same variety of speech tones he gives to a range of supporting roles.

It's difficult to assess a play that's composed of two halves of such disparate qualities. In certain ways, the success of act two actually hurt act one - the garish and unnecessary use of video projections in act one was probably prompted by a desire to be consistent with act two, which featured such projections at strong, apposite junctures. Plus, my date for the evening was turned off act two as well, simply because it didn't follow the style of act one.

But ratings aside, The Campaign to Confer the Public Service Star on JBJ will go down in the history books because it dares to speak truths about Singapore in a time of ideological confusion. It explains how political repression exists in the minds of the governed as much as in the arm of the government, that the civil service is deeply uncertain over what is now permitted in an age of superficial liberty, that the arts can be the government's tool in conspiracy, that our system can and does continue to crush lives in its relentless pursuit of control.

More than Exit, perhaps more than Invitation to Treat, this is a piece of Eleanor Wong's work that will have resonance for years to come. Let's just cross our fingers and hope that her future work - and our future political system - can have more balance.


"JBJ dares to speak truths about Singapore in a time of ideological confusion"

Second Opinion
A Show by Any Other Word... by Boon Chan

Credits

Playwright: Eleanor Wong

Director: Ivan Heng

Cast: Pam Oei and Rodney Oliveiro

Scenic Designer: Ivan Heng

Video Artist: Casey Lim

Lighting Designer: Yo Shao Ann

Costume Designer: Mothar Kassim

Hair and Wigs: Ashley Lim

Production Manager: BB Koh

Stage Manager: Elnie Mashari

Technical Manager: Teo Kuang Han

Assistant Stage Manager: Alycia Finley

Stage Assistants: Ben Ng, Kala Rahman

Wardrobe Mistress: Pauline Tan

Wardrobe Assistant: Chang Jia Yin

Producer: Tony Trickett

More Reviews of Productions by W!ld Rice

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.