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Production

Immortalx

Company

The Theatre Practice

Reviewer

Shen Qiaoyun

Date

19/04/2007

Time

8.00pm

Place

Jubilee Hall

Rating

***1/2

Delinquent Deities

There are gods living among us, have you heard? These gods operate burger chains and shop at Sim Lim Square for the latest gadgets. They look just like humans. They behave just like humans. And, for the most part, they may as well be human because they have no godly powers left.

The idea behind Immortalx, the latest Mandarin play by The Theatre Practice, is refreshingly creative: The gods of Chinese mythology have lost almost all their powers because humans have stopped believing and praying, thanks to technology and modernisation. (Apparently, prayers are the currency of the gods' powers.) And we have a bunch of restless teenaged gods, direct descendants of such beloved deities as the Wealth God and the Thunder God, forced to attend deity school to develop powers from scratch. But they're just not interested and find all sorts of ways to skip school.

The play starts with mythical luminary Nezha (Judy Ngo) giving a lecture on dragons to a classroom of one teenaged deity, Ao Mi (Liu Xiaoyi). It's a long and tedious scene that makes little sense because the play has little to do with dragons, apart from the fact that orphan boy Ao Mi suspects he is of dragon descent and goes on this metaphorical journey to discover his true identity.
After the first slow scene, however, pandemonium sets the tone for the rest of the play. Enter all the other teen gods, who make a hell of a ruckus. Ah Jing (Andrew Lua) and Ah Zhi (Renee Chua), being children of the tragic Cowherd and Weaving Maiden, are mentally imbalanced and run around playing too many pranks. Ray (Windson Liong) is grandson to the Thunder God and can converse with electronic devices. Fan Shi Yi (Koh Wan Ching), grandson to the Wealth God, is sick of having money fall from the sky and yearns to be poor. And Chang Chang (Catherine Wong) is a descendant of Meng Po, the Deity of Forgetfulness, so, naturally, she's always forgetting stuff.

Perhaps because Immortalx is largely written with a teenage audience in mind, there's a lot of screaming, squabbling and general hyperactivity. But that kind of excessive energy doesn't quite cut it when you consider the fact that the teenage characters are played by adult actors who look nothing more than adults in school uniforms. The play also spends too much time introducing its eccentric deity characters and telling us what we already know from reading the synopsis - that the gods have lost their powers - all of which makes for a rather sluggish first act.

But it's not all bad. There are elements that work: The localisation of the play (Nezha and his deity students go on a field trip to Mount Faber) is sweet, the humanisation of the gods (Kitchen God asks Earth God to SMS him instead of rely on their fading telepathic powers) is funny, and the magic tricks are cute: yes, levitating humans and balls, strings moving by themselves, fire erupting from hands. Not feats that would make a modern, informed audience go wow, but within the context of the play, they inject colour to the production.

The second act, though, is really where the action's at, as the audience is swept into a madcap adventure of good overcoming evil. It may sound clichéd but it's not really, because the delineation between good and evil is not cookie-cutter clear in Immortalx.

"Good" is at first represented by tradition, a time when humans pray to the gods, giving them the power to regulate the human world. "Evil" is the technology that robs the gods of their rightful reign over humans. This status quo changes after the first act, when the world is plunged into darkness after a global blackout. Humans start praying in fear and, voila, the gods regain all their powers. That has to be a good thing, yes?

No. The gods find themselves in a moral bind when they learn that the blackout is orchestrated by an evil demon. Quelling the demon would mean an end to their newly-regained powers since humans would go back to being complacent and stop praying again. Not quelling the demon would go against their natural instinct to protect the world from evil. It is the playing out of this dilemma that allows the play to transcend being simply a broad comedy.

Disguised within engaging subplots, social messages - such as those of learning responsibility and managing complacency - stir thought without being preachy. The teen gods may be rowdy but they prove to be good role models because, when the stakes are high, they instinctively know to do the right thing.

Top props go to the eight-member cast for taking on multiple roles credibly. Nearly all of the actors play two to four roles each, and part of the fun is figuring out which characters are played by the same actor (assuming you don't read the credits beforehand).

Actress Catherine Wong deserves accolades for taking on four roles and turning two of them into the funniest and most memorable characters in the play. Her portrayals of the Monkey God and the villain immortal raised the most laughs from the audience because of her impeccable comic timing and hilarious accents. The toughest character switch, however, has to be Judy Ngo's roles of Nezha and Erlang Shen's secretary. As the male, middle-aged, no-nonsense Nezha, Judy puts in a commendable performance, considering that she's playing against gender and age. But when she flips into bitchy ah lian mode as Erlang Shen's secretary, it's simply golden to watch.

China-born actor Liu Xiaoyi is charismatic as Ao Mi, as he manages to flesh out a character that an audience can empathise with and root for. Also noteworthy is Andrew Lua's take on a modernised Erlang Shen. His portrayal of the standoffish, busy CEO who refuses to go back to being a god is at the same time funny and heart-warming.

The play fares well with many inspired performances from a cast that exhibits great chemistry as a team, and a fun storyline which takes the audience into a fantastical world. While the start is shaky, it does get progressively better. As the teenagers in the play grow up through trials and tribulations, so does the play itself. You then get an ending that is poignant and meaningful, leaving you with a happy glow in your heart.

Years ago, Inkpot Guest Writer Shen Qiaoyun gave up a promising journalism career to try her hand at being a struggling actress. So successful is she that, years later, she's still "struggling". But she maintains that the bohemian life is the perfect counter to corporate slavery, so it suits her just fine. Primarily a screen actress, her experience in theatre and the arts is limited to the drama education she received during her school days, but she's working on changing that and welcomes all offers to audition for your production.


"While the start is shaky, it does get progressively better. As the teenagers in the play grow up through trials and tribulations, so does the play itself. You then get an ending that is poignant and meaningful, leaving you with a happy glow in your heart."

Credits

Playwright: Wu Xi

Director: Alvin Chiam

Set & Lightning Designer: Lim Woan Wen

Sound Designer: Varian Tan

Costume Designer: Tan Hong Chye

Magic Designer & Consultant: Jack Seet

Production Stage Manager: Ting Hock Hoe

Assistant Stage Manager: Tang Ji Ching

Crew: Wong Chee Wai, Chan Lee Lee, Sandesh Gurung

Wardrobe Supervisor: Engie Ho

Wardrobe Assistant: Rachel Chua

Lighting Operator: Chiew Jin Wen

Subtitle Operator: Koh Boon Han

Cast: Judy Ngo, Liu Xiaoyi, Andrew Lua, Renee Chua, Windson Liong, Koh Wan Ching, Catherine Wong, Ace Chew


More Reviews of Productions by The Theatre Practice

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