Like any agency, the National Arts Council of Singapore likes to feel like it knows what it's doing, so it's been their informal policy for a while to persuade theatre companies to develop clear corporate identities: Cake Theatre = mad kitschy avant-garde, for example, or ACTION Theatre = Singapore-written populist scripts; Theatreworks = epic cross-cultural interdisciplinary work. Categories like that make administration so much easier - grant allocations, festival recommendations - and probably help a new company carve a niche for itself in a crowded theatre scene.
The problem is that for a theatre company to grow, it's gotta reach beyond its strict identity; it's gotta monkey around with foreign ideas couched beyond its comfort zone. A prime example would be the case of how the Finger Players broke out of its former repertoire of children's puppet theatre to create new adult dramas, with puppetry techniques used as a new visual language to explore mature and complex themes. This didn't cause problems for the categorists, of course - regardless of the age of audience members, the truism that Finger Players = puppet theatre held as true as ever.
But not anymore. What I love about 0501 is that it once again challenges the apparent corporate identity of the Finger Players by throwing out all the puppets, throwing out even most of the puppeteers - instead, it's conceived as performance art by the most overlooked creative artists of the theatre world: the techies, designers of lighting, sound and set; forcing these people out of their comfort zones into the limelight.
The venerable venue of Victoria Theatre is turned inside-out to reflect this new rubric of creation. We enter from a stage door, finding the entire audience of 200 is squeezed onto the stage itself, squatting on plastic buckets, facing the empty rows of seats. Around us, the proscenium is transformed into a black box of wonder: an intricate fretwork of pulleys and strings, criss-crossing the ceiling, while the cast/crew huddles around us in boxes and tentages: little islands of habitation scattered across the floor (one of the performers even keeps a small dog inside her wigwam).
We spend roughly 20 minutes taking in the scenery, watching the bodies at rest, shifting props, exchanging messages, before the first definitively theatrical moment of the night: a light projection of a bilingual poem. Then the acts begin: weird, imaginative, astonishingly beautiful happenings brimming with the innocent joy of play. Eight months on, I still remember them: a woman unrolling an endless dress on a ladder which becomes a cone of light, giving birth to a glowing sphere; a man in heavy cloth shivering slowly in the wind of industrial-strength electric fans; a boy dancing in front of a music box; a girl being attacked by performers disguised as corners; a chorus of robots with paper packets over their heads; a group photograph within a frame, everyone mischievous as schoolchildren, oblivious to the fact that with each blinding flash of light, another of them disappears.
It's hard to decide how to categorise such numbers - I've used the term "performance art", but the actions of 0501 don't fall within the issue-based tradition of veteran Singapore performance artists Lee Wen, Tang Dawu and Amanda Heng as exemplified in the Future of Imagination or Fetterfield festivals. It's arguable that the piece instead echoes prior non-narrative, choreographic devised works in Singapore - The Necessary Stage's Under the Last Dust, perhaps, or Theatreworks's Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral. But the fresh, light-hearted tone of the production suggests something quite different to me - I'm reminded of some of the two-minute pieces by the Chicago/New York Neo-Futurists of Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind: odd gestures, designed to communicate sensations rather than messages, obsessed less with rigour than with the very idea of creation.
These are uncharted waters indeed, especially for an erstwhile children's puppet group. Yet it's also visible how the spirit of the Finger Players is consistent through its various incarnations: in these acts, performers are toying with household items or the instruments of tech, animating the inanimate the same way a puppeteer invests life in a dead puppet.
What's also impressive is the group's investment in process: the ensemble actually spent an entire year doing monthly workshops before the show, devising their creations and building community over time. I'm also struck by the democratic ethos at work in the act of relinquishing creative control, bestowing it on the backstage geniuses previously only involved in supporting a director's creation. (Of course, these may be quite natural sympathies in a profession where the performers are invisible and the divas are made of papier-mâché).
Perhaps I should be more sparing with praise. Much of my excitement over 0501 is due to context: my awareness of how it signals the development of the company. I do have criticisms: some of the longer, more dance-based items made my attention wander, and a few - the one with the couple dancing through the aisles throwing plastic bag roses, for example - were saccharinely sentimental.
But at the end of the day, this is a production that's kickass in three ways: ideologically, it's fantastically egalitarian and generous; in terms of genre, it's adventurous and uncategorisable; and aesthetically, it's simply a cascade of beauty.
At the close of the show, a changing sequence of lights slowly illuminates each section of the stage. We see for the first time the intricate geometry of Victoria Theatre's backstage crevices, the tired, familiar architecture made magical, seen through new eyes.
It is safe and profitable to limit one's practice; it is also
wrong. Us = something more. Theatremakers: break form. Make it new.
An outstanding work of stagecraft: the cast/crew of Finger Players turns Victoria Theatre inside out, cramming 200 audience members onto the stage and transforming it into a black box extraordinaire, strung with assorted pulleys and tech props that unleash graceful moments of phantasmagoria both behind and before the audience. The weird, unexpected movements of the performers - cuddling dogs, dunking their faces into water bowls, using ladders as birthing chairs - become all the more intimate for their proximity to the audience: one can feel the gust of electric fans even before we spy the actor trembling in the wind. It is, however, difficult to justify this work as theatre rather than dance: it's hard to find a connecting thematic thread that links the mostly (though not uniformly) excellent performances, and the closing monologue on life and loneliness fails to satisfactorily close the gamut of experiences played out on stage. Above all, however, 0501 must be prized as a glorious work of experiment, even involving backstage crew like sound designer Darren Ng, set designer Lim Wei Ling and lighting designer Lim Woan Wen together with its cast of singers, puppeteers and dancers. The production expands our consciousness of potential stage vocabulary - future shows should consider themselves lucky to be thought derivative of this work.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /