Journeying On North Diversion Road would have been so much more enjoyable if the trip had taken much less time. This could have been easily accomplished by cutting out ten repetitive minutes from each of the ten individual vignettes. That way, we would not have those languorous moments to ponder where we were going and consider getting out of the car at the next traffic light. But while monotony made On North Diversion Road a bumpy ride, the destination was worth it.
There were ten different couples travelling on the road, each with their own agendas but united by the fact that all the males in the relationship had cheated on their female partners. I could tolerate this as the consistent motif of the play, even if it was disappointing to find out every conflict between the couple was due to the male's adultery.
What I could not tolerate was the completely unchanging scenarios each vignette posed. Every time a scene unfolded, the couple began communicating in one set fashion. These varied between vignettes (for example, cold warring, incessant bickering and wailing), but within each vignette there was no variety: the couples kept going at it without pause or alteration. There was little, if any, evolution in the characters and the situation. It was as if I were looking at paintings come to life but forever re-enacting the one moment they were painted.
In The Orange Light the unhappy married couple played by Eleanor Tan and Hang Qian Chou is stuck in a tedious screaming match. From the beginning of the scene, the pair hurls insults at each other: she calls his mother a bitch, so he calls her mother a bitch, so she calls his grandmother a bitch, and on and on it goes. The verbal abuse becomes increasingly and disturbingly explicit until, at the peak of their bickering, Tan challenges Hang's wish that she "would just die" by opening the door of the car they are travelling in and threatening to jump out. But the chance to wring some compassion out of these two-dimensional caricatures quickly slips by when Hang continues to taunt her regardless, and Tan retreats into a defensive shell, promising never to die so she can make the rest of his life miserable.
For the most part, the rest of the play made good on Tan's promise: the scenes refused to die, and far too many of them shared Orange Light's lack of character depth.
This flaw was rooted in the myopic interpretations of the scenes and characters rather than the actors' inability. It was obvious that the actors of young & W!LD are a dedicated bunch with the energy to live up to their company name. When they had to bawl, they bawled their eyes out, and when they had to giggle and play ditz, they giggled and played ditz all the way. Vanessa Wong had the honour of such a performance in The Steering Lesson. Yet for all the energy she channelled into being "happy and bubbly like champagne", you could not help but feel that her effort went to waste. She could have injected some nuance into her character when she cheekily justified that if her husband could “play hootsy-patootsy” with her mahjong playmate, then she could let other men “play hootsy-patootsy” with her too. Instead any wit in writer Tony Perez' script was largely lost through her overacting. I could not tell if she would have been able to give a more stirring performance had she had been directed to portray her character with more depth. But I do know that the actors gave their all and milked their characters for all they were worth, despite the fact that many of the scenes offered repetitive lines and superficial characters. At the very best their sketchy performances entertained me, but as soon as their entertainment value was exhausted (and it was exhausted very quickly) the rest of their scenes became dreary.
One scene that valued subtlety over cheap laughs was The Ride. Unlike many of the other vignettes, this scene refused to give the plot away with a simple one-liner like "You… You two-timer!" There were, of course, hints: "Did you do item seven on the checklist?" asks the woman. The succinct and meaningful lines were delivered with conviction appropriate to the bespectacled, intellectual couple the scene centred on - a couple that cherishes the ideal of fidelity, but who are able to recognise that while the soul may be willing, the body is often weak. The pair decide to move on with their lives without blame. If anything, the wife shares the blame for her husband's act as they make a final decision to endure the consequences together. One of the first tender scenes in the play, The Ride lost none of its depth to melodrama.
A reversal of this role of the merciful wife is seen in The Excursion. From the darkness onstage, you hear a small voice begin a prayer. A boy is praying for forgiveness for his infidelity. At the end of the five-minute long prayer, the lights fade up to reveal the boy, hunched and sorrowful, and the unforgiving woman beside him who ends his prayer, and his life, with the gun in her hand. I was happy that here was finally a piece that did not overstay its welcome, saying no more than it needed to make its point, and making that point powerfully with that eerie image of betrayed and vengeful love.
The Ride and The Excursion stood out not because of exceptional acting (indeed, the acting standard in these two scenes was lower than in some of the others), but because they were succinct and shed fresh light on a subject made trite by constant repetition throughout the rest of the evening.
The technical crew did marvellously in manipulating the lights to create the time-passing effect of journeying through tunnels and past streetlamps. Similarly the sound crew's uses of traffic noises were apt. Put together, they engineered the languid ambience of being stuck in between destinations while travelling on the road.
It worked, for me, because I mostly felt stuck in "the Waiting Place… for people just waiting. Waiting for a train to go, or a bus to come, or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants, or a wig with curls, or another chance." (Doctor Seuss) In my case, I was waiting for some secret stroke of brilliance to save the play.
There was one near the end of the play. The second-to-last scene offered an illuminating perspective different from all the other vignettes: it focused on a conversation between a man and his mistress. Tony, a musician and Charmaine, his singer and confidante, are travelling to a concert when Tony informs Charmaine of his decision to marry his girlfriend, May. This triggers Charmaine's confession of her feelings for Tony and her interrogation of his reasons for marrying May: she asks whether it is "Because of social expectations? Is it security?" The play seems to suggest that we ask ourselves the same questions, and compare our own aspirations and compromises to those of the unhappy people in the play - especially if, like Tony, we find ourselves answering "I don't know."
The following scene served as an epilogue to this story, and saw a desperate Tony seeking a cure for terminally ill May, to whom he has now been married for 16 years, (and whom he has cheated on for god knows how long). Having come to terms with her fate, May wants Tony to marry Charmaine after her death; she not only knows of their relationship, she allows it. No doubt she has been hurt by her husband's misdeeds, but she has forgiven him because she loves him. Eleanor Tan showed she was capable of a rousing performance as May and I believed in her marriage to Tan Shou Chen enough to find my heart wrenched at the candour and finality of their relationship.
There is a high price for travelling On North Diversion Road. It is like taking a road trip - lots of waiting and bearing with discomfort such as stomach aches and hunger until you reach a place that makes you feel relieved and sated. These places are rare on the road, but that makes them all the more treasured. As you travel the last few metres to the end of the road, you find that the journey, like most journeys, was worthwhile after all.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /