Life on the Street
It is easy to forget that the hottest ticket in town used to be one for a wayang performance, and precious few remain enchanted by the regal dance and lyric of Hokkien street opera. But as traditional wayang languishes, a snazzy yet poignant evocation of its heyday thrives on the modern stage.
Based on the Hokkien street opera of the same name, Titoudao charts the rags-to-riches story of a loyal servant (Pam Oei) to Ti Boon Long (Sebastian Tan), an impoverished scholar in ancient China. The latter is left penniless in the wake of a family bankruptcy, and asks his betrothed, the snooty, materialistic Teng Lay Qiao (Chua Enlai) to lend him money for the upcoming imperial examination. Unsurprisingly, his efforts are in vain, and it is Lay Qiao's benevolent stepsister Swee Lian (Judy Tan) who comes to his aid. With the help of his loyal servant and a lucky encounter with the Emperor (Beatrice Chia-Richmond), his fortune and position in society are restored.
Titoudao intersperses these opera sequences with the life story of writer/director Goh Boon Teck's mother and wayang legend, Mdm Oon Ah Chiam. Essentially, there is nothing about Oon's rags-to-riches story we haven't already heard. This feisty lady weathers gender inequality, an impoverished childhood, abandonment and a stagnant marriage to emerge as one of wayang's most iconic figures. Under Goh's inspired direction the play casts aside such clichéd heroics, weaving an intriguing tale of not only Mdm Oon's past, but also of backstage life and everyday existences in Singapore half a century ago.
Central to Titoudao is the inimitable Pam Oei, who handles Mdm Oon's multiple roles in life with aplomb. Her boundless energy onstage belies her stature: she switches from spunky Ah Chiam complete with faux ponytails to weary housewife to a hunched Mdm Oon accepting wayang's sudden decline with admirable stoicism. But Oei's rendition of Mdm Oon's life is also touched with warmth, restraint and true delicacy of feeling. In one of Titoudao's most poignant scenes, Ah Chiam comforts her little sister Ah Dui in the dark, unfamiliar confines of a wayang troupe's residence after their father abandons them. Oei's Ah Chiam dials down her typical loudness to ask for her sister's autograph in a teasing whisper, giggling lightly before embracing her. It is a wonderfully funny and tender moment and leaves a warm afterglow.
Given Oei's talent for capturing the audience's imagination every time she is onstage, it is tempting to elevate Mdm Oon's character to that of a heroine; a woman that single-handedly tackles some of life's most brutal obstacles. Fortunately, Goh avoids such facile self-absorption, acknowledging that Mdm Oon's life is typical of a period where community was not so much essential as it was inescapable. Large families, housing shortages and poverty meant that many Singaporeans - often too many - had to live in cramped quarters. It is natural then that communal living exerts a significant influence on Mdm Oon's life, and many other characters - be they the wayang troupe, her spineless husband or her motley crew of siblings - share in her griefs and joys.
Aided by a winning cast, Goh illustrates this beautifully in Titoudao's ensemble moments. In a riveting snapshot of Mdm Oon's childhood, Ah Chiam leads her siblings to a family plantation, where they engage in round after round of good-natured bullying, banter and roughhouse. The cohesive and finely balanced cast provides appropriate foils to Pam Oei's loud, assertive character, deftly capturing the sense of community inherent in the 50s and 60s.
Beneath Titoudao's casual artlessness is also a surprisingly deep and honest examination of acting. A scene where Mdm Oon and reluctant members of a wayang troupe audition for roles in an upcoming opera is tinged with an amusing, if not wry, shade of realism: As each member warbles the lyrics and goes off-key, acting is revealed to be just another job, stripped of its glamour, art and skill.
Mdm Oon's final monologue provides a meaningful counterpoint to this prosaic treatment of the craft. She claims acting to be "an addiction": on stage, all "her worry and problem disappear". These expressions are all too familiar, but uttered with such sincerity and conviction that you can only believe her wholeheartedly.
Aside from the rags-to-riches parallel that runs through both narratives, the dramatic purpose of weaving scenes from the opera Titoudao into Mdm Oon's life story is not clear. While this opera might have been crucial to Mdm Oon's success as a wayang actress, there is little in it that is apposite to the central themes of the play. Also, some of these opera sequences were poorly executed, further detracting from Titoudao's focus. While the play does not set out to be an incisive study of this precise and difficult art, these sequences could have used a few more rehearsals and better training.
The cast's unfamiliarity with Hokkien is chief among the problems that affect Goh's adaptation of the opera. While they do not flub lines or make obvious errors, the predominantly English-speaking and -performing actors struggle to grasp the nuances of the dialect. At times, awkward pace and intonation take their toll.
Shoddy vocals also mar Goh's adaptation of the opera. Judy Tan in particular seems ill suited for one of the opera's key singing roles, and her scene partners frequently drown out her threadbare vocals. With neither vocal power nor prowess, Tan's portrayal of Teng Swee Lian robs her of her subtle indignation and moral courage and turns her into a shy, forgettable girl next door.
Even if it did tend to stall sometimes, Titoudao sparkles with clear ideas about art and life not only in the 50s and 60s, but also in present times. In paying homage to Mdm Oon's life, Titoudao is also a sentimental tribute to the fortitude of those devoted to theatre. It is a celebration of the stage, demonstrating the value of a theatrical sensibility to both art and life. Different modes of theatre may wax and wane, but one cannot deny, especially after watching Titoudao, the timelessness of theatre's gift.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /