The Gods Must Be Crazy
A group of immortals and their teenage offspring combat identity issues and physical weakness to overpower demons who are trying to take over the world. For the older immortals, whose powers have diminished over the years due to a lack of devotees, the Armageddon-like crisis allows them to regain powers that are garnered through the desperate prayers of humankind. For the teenage immortals, who have never wielded such powers, the situation gives them their first taste of their supernatural abilities.
In its original melding of fable and realism, the premise of Immortalx is filled with potential. The plot is inhabited by instantly recognisable characters of the Chinese deity pantheon, like Ne Zha, the Earth God, the Jade Emperor and Sun Wu Kong. These are easy targets for lampooning and so any modern adaptation is immediately funny, such as the erstwhile child-deity Ne Zha becoming a stodgy, moustachio-ed teacher and de facto principal of the school for teenage immortals, and who is now known by his students as Mr Ne (Judy Ngo). The older immortals cling to their past, while the teenage immortals, like first-generation immigrant children, are caught between past and present, and more than a little confused about their identities.
The plot also provides opportunities for deeper insights to be mined. The tension between tradition and modernity is apparent in the dilemma of the immortal teenagers, who are urged to learn traditional immortal skills even though these are obviously surpassed by modern technology. The teenagers' journey towards adulthood and self-realisation is another rich area. A deeper layer of meaning is added to the question of deity when we learn that the immortals derive their powers directly from the prayers of devotees. This posited inter-dependence between devotion and godliness could hint at an underlying critique of fair-weather devotees or, more daringly, all religious believers.
But the play never delves into these themes. The script was perfunctory with regard to these matters, and remained satisfied with mining the comedic and action-oriented potential of the plot. As a result, Immortalx skips aimlessly around the issues it raises, and dwells largely on the rowdy adventures that the teenagers experience in their quest to free the universe from the mischief of demons. Some of these "adventures", like a trip to a dusty shophouse in Shanghai in search of the Jade Emperor, were too shoddily staged to be convincing. Apart from the use of the set to evoke a dragon and hills, the sets were also disappointingly uninspired.
Characterisation also suffered as a result of the superficial nature of the script. The main theme of identity was too neatly resolved - with the realization that immortals gain powers during a crisis (when people pray a lot) and then become regular non-powerful beings during peaceful periods (when people don't pray). For protagonist Ao Mi (Liu Xiao Yi) who spent most of the play in angst over his identity, his casual acceptance of the situation of modern-day immortals at the end was just not convincing.
Nevertheless, the cohesive ensemble cast worked well to create energetic scenes that buzzed with action and dialogue. Light-hearted jokes abounded in Immortalx, with some successes despite a heavy reliance on easy clichés. Judy Ngo's middle-aged Ne Zha laid out in fresh lines the age-old clichés of the school disciplinarian that we all loved, mocked and sometimes feared. Sun Wu Kong, now plump and complacent after living in a cushy zoo, was also an effective comic character. Catherine Wong worked the audience deftly; by throwing in a Hong Kong accent and milking it to the roars of the audience, she played on the various stereotypical Hong Kong screen productions of Journey to the West.
Overall, more restraint and editing would have been helpful to shave away superfluous elements which cluttered the plot and distracted the audience. The throwaway character of the bitchy secretary to a corporate Er Lang Shen, while an amusing distraction, added little to the plot. At times, it became difficult to keep track of where the plot was going, such as during the long interludes with the school principal who is caught in a state of limbo between universes. The raucous twins, the messed-up children of Cowherd and Weaver Maiden (Renee Chua and Andrew Lua), came off as ridiculous rather than unstable. Overacting on their part distracted from the plot and clouded their characters' deeper vulnerabilities. The play's eagerness to play to the galleys also saw a number of baffling jokes tossed in - such as the mistaken thrashing of a fellow immortal teen instead of a demon - without much point. Too often, jokes that were worth one or two chuckles were repeated needlessly until the laughter ran dry. Tiresome elements like these contributed to the especially ponderous pacing in the second half.
The use of magic tricks, an element played up in promotional press coverage, would have been more successful if the tricks had been smoother in execution. As it was, the unveiling of each trick was a (somewhat anti-climatic) event in itself, rather than an element seamlessly blended into the plot to support the pretension that the immortals possess magic powers. In any case, a spot of imaginative staging could have produced the same effect without exposing the actors to fireball burns and other magicians' ailments.
While the younger audience was tickled pink by the surfeit of jokes
and shenanigans, the mature crowd seemed less taken. For the feat of
attracting and enthralling an eager youth audience, I take my hat off
to The Theatre Practice. But for whatever else Immortalx set
out to do artistically, the play did not live up to its premise.
A comedy about modern day deities whose powers have diminished due to a lack of devotees. The teenage offspring of these deities struggle with identity issues, while the older generation (like Ne Zha) seek to retain their traditional deity powers even though they are obviously surpassed by modern technology. A cohesive ensemble cast who performed their own magic tricks, no less, was not enough to salvage the perfunctory script and uninspired staging. There were scattered kernels of interest, like the tension between tradition and modernity, but these were not explored beyond the surface. While Immortalx managed to milk its unconventional premise and throwaway humour to generate appreciative laughs from its youth audience, it unfortunately didn't press many of my buttons.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /