Is This Adagio I See Before Me?
Ten minutes into The Finger Players' I'm Just a Piano Teacher, I was worried. It's not that I wasn't having a good time. It's not that I wasn't delighted by the production's striking visual aesthetic, which placed heavily made-up human heads on puppet bodies... No, my worry was that the play would leave a bitter taste in my mouth.
A look at Piano Teacher's dramatis personae might help explain why. The play's four characters are: The Loser Son, The Distant Father, The Neurotic Mum and The Black-Faced Maid. No character is credited with the humanity to merit a name; all each gets is a rather snide epithet. The performances also delighted in a slightly cruel superficiality, presenting us almost with shooting range targets - thin, distasteful stereotypes that we were expected to want to knock down. It all reminded me uncomfortably of 2004's Napoleon Dynamite, a misanthropic movie that has nothing but contempt for its characters and whose popularity among certain university students indicates that they need classes in compassion.
But, although it often flirted with misanthropy, it soon became clear that Piano Teacher did have a heart - indeed, perhaps it had more heart than it needed...
Much of the play's compassion was due to a finely balanced, deceptively deep portrayal of The Loser Son by Tan Beng Tian. Tan skilfully wove her characterisation around the line that separates pitiable and pathetic. Often, she made us feel derision for the Son. She made him timid and cringing, ineffectual and whiny. She made him middle-aged but immature, denying him masculinity and substituting it with a stale, tired boyishness. Even though the Son's puppet body was firm and relatively small, she made it appear a shlubby mound of flesh, thanks to her awkward, dromedary gait and her transparent self-consciousness. In a scene where the Son phoned the unattainable object of his affections (a fellow piano teacher), Tan, who usually spoke in Chinese, put on a fake English accent, stretching the vowels and over-enunciating the consonants in a pitch-perfect caricature of a painfully inadequate social climber. In short, Tan made him a loser.
But Tan also made us feel sorry for him. Every shock, every disappointment, every frustration that the Son's unenviable family inflicted on him registered pure and clean on Tan's face for the briefest fraction of a second before it dissolved with a furrowed brow into self-doubt and diffidence. And in one magnificent scene she went further and brought all the Son's resentments out into the open. The Neurotic Mum, who has always dreamed of her untalented Son's success as a concert pianist, is worried that he has given up the piano and seems depressed. To cheer him up, she hands him a small drum, of the type that hangs around your neck. The Son shoots his mother a glance of shock and accusation: he thinks she must be mad to present him with this infantilising gift. But then slowly it dawns on him that he deserves the drum. "Hang it on my neck?" he asks, increasingly, numbingly aware that his mother has turned him into a clumsy child - into a clockwork monkey. And then, as he takes the drumsticks and beats the drum with simian imprecision, his numbness is gradually replaced by a burning core of betrayal, humiliation and resentment. In short, Tan made us see what he had lost.
I love symbolic theatre and this scene was a very fine example of it - especially because it meshed so well with the protagonist's character and with the plot. After the drum scene, we hear a cacophony of noise - sound designer Darren Ng's striking aural caricature of a horror movie stabbing scene - and we suspect that the Son has finally taken revenge for a lifetime of maternal manipulation and has killed his mother. In fact, we later learn that all the Son did was drink himself into a stupor, complaining of his lot to the Maid, and drunkenly promising to marry her if she kills his mother for him. When, horrified, he learns that the Maid has taken him at his word and has chopped up his mother, we remember his violent resentment in the drumming scene and we are less shocked by the murder than by the fact that he was too weak to do the deed himself.
Much of the rest of the script was just as good: writer / director Oliver Chong was great at inserting symbolic motifs that deepened the poetic impact of his play even as they added humour. For example, he gave the Black-Faced Maid a grotesque fascination with strangely violent TV cooking shows and news reports of plane crashes, which lent the play a knowing, pseudo-Shakespearian sense of dread (especially since one of the crashes took place in Denmark).
Additionally he sometimes interrupted the dialogue with mimed sequences in which he contracted time and exaggerated physicality so as to distil for us his characters' petty cruelties and insecurities. A scene where the Mum, glint-eyed and catlike, arbitrarily beat the cringing, puppy-dog Maid was particularly effective.
And sometimes he let the action erupt into hilarious fantasy sequences with strobe lighting and slo-mo kung fu, vividly showing us his mild-mannered protagonist's suppressed desires and fears.
Of course, this dynamic script would be nothing if the whole cast were not equal to it - and thankfully they were.
Jo Kwek was almost supernaturally good as The Neurotic Mum. Every action - the flutter of an eyelash, the tenor of a giggle, the set of a puppet elbow - powerfully communicated a desperate, faded coquettishness, both eager to please and unpleasing. This was a woman forever striving, despite her stiff joints and her dowdy apron, for a girlishness she may never have possessed; this was a woman trilling "Love me" like a torch-song balladeer, but, even when given love, always needing more.
Kwek also responded agilely to the play's escalating surrealism. At the start, her constant plays for attention are measured, almost tentative - but at the end, when she has been hacked to pieces and comes back to haunt her unfilial Son in a fantasy sequence, she transmits with demonic glee a gaping, unfillable neediness. And that she manages this as a disembodied head while singing a cheesy Chinese pop song of unrequited love (arranged with delicious cheapness by Ng) is impressive indeed.
Judy Ngo as The Distant Father was also very strong. She made every movement as definite as the swoosh of a cane, and used silence to create a hard barrier around her. Yet she was not menacing or monstrous; instead she stood back, assessed, disapproved - and in this silent, remote watchfulness lay her power, like a castle on a hill.
And Koh Leng Leng as the Black-Faced Maid gave a remarkable physical performance. She endowed the Maid with three moods: a childlike eagerness, a kicked-puppy anxiety, and a blank vacancy. The joy of her performance was in how vividly she expressed these states, so that her eagerness radiated light, her anxiety made whining noises and her blankness rendered her invisible; and the joy was also in how she transitioned from one state to another, so that a quick switch from eagerness to anxiety was both funny and sad, while a slow fade into blankness added texture to the background of a scene.
Sadly, Koh's voice was not nearly as strong as her physicality: her speech was flat, lacking the exaggerated punch this play required, and her accent remained Chinese-Singaporean when one of the defining traits of the Maid was her non-Chinese ethnicity.
Still, the Maid didn't really have many lines, so it is fair to say that all the performances were extremely successful - and this is all the more impressive when you remember that the characters' physicality had to be expressed not through the performers' bodies, but through the manipulation of the puppet bodies that were hanging around their necks. Similarly, the actors had to modulate their face acting to fit the puppets and so they had to make their faces into articulate masks, expressive in the same unsubtle, elemental manner as the loosely articulated puppet bodies.
They were assisted by great design across the board. The make-up gave their faces just enough geometry to match the puppets without reducing expressiveness; the costumes were simple but telling (the Son's fussy bow tie was a particularly good choice); and the interaction between the set and the lighting was ingenious. The puppets' feet only reached the black-clad actors' knees, which would normally mean the puppets would appear to float in mid-air. But the set compensated for this by being completely black below knee-level so that walls and tables, etc., only started from the puppets' feet up. Added to this, Lim Woan Wen's lights precisely defined the edges of the puppets' world, and he used a UV wash to pick out the whites in the make-up, the costumes and the set, making them even more strikingly "present" - making them hyperreal.
The play ends with the Son killing both his Father and the Maid. After the show, the general opinion among the people I spoke to was that a subtler ending would have been more appropriate - that "it didn't need to go so far". On the contrary, it didn't go far enough. The play seemed to me to be borrowing from the tradition of Grand Guignol*, an early 20th century Parisian theatrical style which gloried in horrifically exaggerated violence. (Appropriately enough, Grand Guignol translates literally as "Big Puppet".) The problem for me was that Piano Teacher failed to exploit fully the grisly potential of this style of theatre, and attempted instead to end on a note of psychological realism which sounded distinctly off-key. After killing the Father and the Maid, the Son stands for a long time stock still, aghast. We see him grapple with what he has done, feel the import of it, struggle under its weight. But the show had not prepared us for this sudden burst of naturalism and so it could not affect us - it felt tacked on and (ironically) false. Instead, I would like to see the end of the play build into a frenzy of Grand Guignol bloodletting. Instead of the son killing both the Father and the Maid with simple decapitations, the violence should escalate: perhaps he could throw bleach in their faces or dismember them alive - anything that would justify the tragicomic, operatic, almost Elizabethan sense of foreboding that the play had so assiduously built up.
It would be easy to undervalue Piano Teacher: it is a puppet play; its story is simple; it is short. But the people behind this production have married a minute perceptiveness of human flaw and foible to an exuberant fairground mirror aesthetic and they have produced something with humour, truth and poetic force.
*Doug Wright's Quills is a modern take on Grand Guignol and was produced last year in Singapore, although, strangely, the production toned down the Grand Guignol influences, as you can see in this review.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /