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Everything But The Brain


ACTION Theatre


Deanne Tan






Esplanade Theatre Studio



The Science of Love

Everything But The Brain rewards an attentive audience – the more you pay attention, the more you get out of it. Its basic premise is that of a 36-year old physics teacher, Elaine Tan, dealing with her elderly father’s physical deterioration and death. It starts off as a whimsical fairytale where a loving daughter extrapolates Einstein’s theory of relativity to slow down time and live happily ever after with her father, until reality destroys the dream when Elaine’s father has stroke after stroke and eventually dies. But this isn’t a sad play, or even a moralistic one. Its tone is playful but dignified, and its focus is really on the intimate relationship between father and daughter.

Throughout the play, the clock marks the minutes in the last year of the father’s life. The clock counts down with ruthless imprecision (time being, after all, relative), worsening illness and dashing Elaine’s romantic aspirations with a young doctor on a whim. A stroke of the clock is juxtaposed with a life-sapping medical stroke for Elaine’s father. Time implies ageing for single girl Elaine as well, “fine wine turning into vinegar” as she denies herself the pursuit of sensual pleasure.

But even though time wins the battle, physics (a shared passion that symbolises the bond between father and daughter) seems to win the war. Elaine’s “theory of relativity” is a variation of her father’s teaching of Einstein, a concept introduced to a 6-year old Elaine while on a train to Malacca. Her father used the three bears to illustrate the concept of relativity, but I’m not going to explain it because it would be a spoiler (and I still don’t quite understand it). Elaine’s conclusion is therefore that her father can beat time if she puts him on a train to Malacca. But this is the fairytale part of the story. In real life, father and daughter make the best of their last moments together as life slips away. When her father dies, Elaine comes to terms with it by keeping her father’s brain in a Tupperware – presumably as a tribute to her father’s intellectual legacy.

The script was complemented by beautiful performances from Pamela Oei (Elaine) and Gerald Chew (Elaine's father), who reprised their roles from the 2005 run. Oei was completely lovable as Elaine, the devoted daughter whose intelligence and self-awareness placed her squarely within a pantheon of modern heroines. Oei also showed us the comic, sad, and luminously human aspects of Elaine’s situation. Just when Oei’s character started to disappear into a bland goody-two-shoes mould, Oei gave us a reason to embrace Elaine for being exactly like us. In an incongruously cheesy moment, the handsome young doctor whom Elaine had a crush on bolted when he realised that she was his secondary school physics teacher, not classmate. Elaine snapped, and her rabid calculations of the doctor's age, her crushing conclusion that she was a good 9 years too old for him, and her ensuing rant about the plight of singles, were played to the comedic hilt by Oei.

Chew, as well, was pitch-perfect as the genteel intellectual obsessed with physics and a little clueless about handling the complexities of a daughter. Exquisitely sensitive acting gave Elaine's father the vulnerability and stubbornness of a man who, growing weak, still wants to play the role of protector to his daughter. Perhaps Chew’s dignified ponderousness could have been more lively, more varied at times, such as during the flashbacks to his youth, but this is a tiny quibble. Chew’s studied nature, unchanging through the passage of time, also highlighted the point that his personal intellectual legacy would endure through time, conquering time just as his daughter had planned.

Like a well-balanced painting, the supporting cast melded seamlessly with the two central characters; Timothy Nga with his TV-host looks and earnest cast, for example, seemed tailor-made for the role of the handsome doctor. I also enjoyed the three bears who were a mix of physical comedy and insinuating sprites.

But while the play was engaging, clever and relevant, it lacked a deeper emotional resonance that was needed for us to be wholeheartedly convinced of the special, magical bond between Elaine and her father. The moments that did this most effectively were few and surprisingly mundane, for instance when Elaine's father nagged her about her stagnant love life, and when Elaine struggled with her father's convalescent diet, his adult diaper, etc. Perhaps the constant insertion of themes and metaphors (which gave the script its richness as a literary work) clouded those moments onstage that most eloquently illustrated the closeness of the everyday interactions between Elaine and her father. In one late scene where Elaine held up a physics book to her father in bed and read to him, both of them aware that his mind could no longer understand its concepts, even the best acting could not absolve the scene of saccharine sentimentality.

I am also inclined to think that there was too much telling and not enough showing, in particular of how the father-daughter relationship blossomed during Elaine’s growing up years. A major turning point occurred during a flashback when Elaine's father told six-year old Elaine that her mother had left the family for good. He then informed us that Elaine had a year-long mental breakdown as a child, and that he had taken a year off work to care for Elaine (a parallel to Elaine later taking a year off work to care for her father). As this was being narrated by Chew, however, Oei sat on a swing with her head bowed, her expression hidden. There was no showing of the sacrifice by Elaine's father, no touching demonstration of how they both overcame their pain to find strength in each other. In fact, the scenes involving a six-year old Elaine with her young father involved mostly crying and tension. Elaine’s adulthood love for physics testified to the eventual success of her father’s parenting, but having not witnessed the process, we are a little less moved by the idea that she was the only “constant” in the endless equations in which her father spent his life searching for answers.

The happy Hallmark-style ending seemed rushed, and I must have missed the point when Elaine decided she would be able to accept losing her father if she could keep his brain. The choice of a big, bright blue Tupperware as an ostentatious brain storage container was morbidity in candy colours. Set within a nursery schoolroom setting, the play went to a bizarre place for a nanosecond before it ended.

I greatly enjoyed the fine actors and the robust script, and how the light-hearted whimsies and grim realities in the play ultimately came together in an absorbing tale of love, sacrifice and loss. But perhaps the inevitable hype created a recipe for inflated expectations which might have built up Action Theatre's production of Everything But the Brain even beyond the capabilities of its script and actors.

"I greatly enjoyed the fine actors and the robust script, and how the light-hearted whimsies and grim realities in the play ultimately came together in an absorbing tale of love, sacrifice and loss."


Producer and Artistic Director: Ekachai Uekrongtham

Director: Samantha Scott-Blackhall

Playwright: Jean Tay

Production Manager: Tan Lay Hoon

Production Designer: Thoranisorn Pitikul

Lighting Designer: Suven Chan

Sound Designer: Darren Ng

Makeup: Cosmoprof

Hair Designer: Ashley Lim

Stage Manager: Cheryl Ho

Costume Coordinator: Vivianne Koh

Sound Operator: Koo Ching Long

Cast: Gerald Chew, Pam Oei, Timothy Nga, Benjamin Ng, Serene Chen, Coral Anne Tong

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ACTION Theatre

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Deanne Tan

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