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Production

Wong Kar Wai Dreams

Company

The Finger Players

Reviewer

Kenneth Kwok

Date

13/06/2007

Time

8.00pm

Place

The Drama Centre

Rating

***1/2

Dreams of Being Wild

One cannot help but go into a production entitled Wong Kar Wai Dreams with certain expectations. Even if you have seen only one of the acclaimed Hong Kong director's films, you would be acutely aware of the director's distinctive cinematic style. As noted in the programme for Dreams, his signature aesthetic includes "luminous reflections of cityscapes ... colour-saturated cinematography and music-suffused visuals"; his narratives usually revolve around "sombre and neurotic characters spouting elliptical one-liners" and navigating a world of nostalgia, frustrated romances and "an air of pessimism and gloom".

The theme of dreaming as the ambiguous intersection between living in the world of reality and living in the world of memory and fantasy, which playwright / director Chong Tze Chien explores in Dreams, fits Wong's cinematic motifs perfectly. The Finger Players, whose unique vocabulary involving the innovative use of puppetry and physical theatre has been used to stunning effect in previous works by the company, is also the ideal match for recreating Wong's expressionistic palette and hypnotic dreamscapes onstage.

Indeed, there were many moments of visual beauty in Dreams that reminded me of similarly poignant beats in the films by Wong's films. Even something as stripped down as a simple butterfly puppet which looked as if it had been made out of vanguard paper by a child in a kindergarten class surprised and moved me as it flitted around onstage at numerous points during the play, its wings in motion under the expert hand of the puppeteer, before suddenly taking flight and soaring across the stage unaided in the final breathtaking scene. Another magical moment occurred at the very beginning of the play when a man scrawled the title of the play across one of the giant structures used as part of the set, only for him to continue his writing beyond the border of the structure into midair.

More cynical audiences may have found these flights of fantasy to be little more than visual tricks but they were vital to my meditative journey into Wong's world where you are always aware that the smallest moment could be the tipping point to change the course of the narrative or suddenly reveal a character's tidal wave of loneliness and loss. For me, they were the keys which opened the doors into Wong's atmospheric dreamscape - a dreamscape represented by the constantly shifting and sliding set, the vivid colours of the costumes and props and the elaborate sequences where cinema-sized shadows were projected on a screen to recreate scenes from Wong's films.

Because the films by Wong which I had seen were all essentially mood pieces draped over the most basic narrative structures (if you need a Hollywood analogue, think of Sofia Coppola's Lost In Translation), what I was unprepared for was Dreams' busy, hard-nosed story, which involved young lovers spouting tart repartee and explicit sexual references. Whether it is the forlorn gay lovers of Happy Together or Tony Leung and his women in 2046, the focus in Wong's films is always on (thwarted) romance and love and never the act of sex itself. In Dreams, however, sex is all the characters seem to talk about, with a paedophilic subplot being particularly unnerving.

I am not a prude by any means and, in fact, I found the frustrated love triangle between policeman Bernard (presumably a sly nod to Leung's character, also a policeman, in Chungking Express) and best friends Ling and Trish, engagingly written as a set piece. My problem with the narrative - and the chorus of ensemble actors playing Wong's film crew as a bumbling team of mechanicals straight out of A Midsummer Night's Dream - was that it jarred with the lush, evocative mood of the rest of the production. While watching Dreams, I often wished I could reach in and pull apart the strands of what seemed like two different plays: one which had a timeless, majestic, dream-like quality to it and the another which seemed very contemporary, verbose and irreverent. I suspect this mix of moods was a conscious aesthetic on the part of Chong to reflect the surreal complexity of real life and the unpredictability of dreams, but I found it distracting rather than illuminating.

I've had a conflicted relationship with Loong Seng Onn (Bernard) as an actor for some time. I do like his physicality and there is something sincere and playful about him onstage which endears his characters to me, but his over-enunciation of words and staccato cadence tend to detract from his performances. Serene Chen (Ling) and Karen Tan (Trish), on the other hand, have long been two of my favourite actress on the Singapore stage and their sensitive and confident performances helped to smooth over some of my misgivings with Dreams as a whole. Even when the writing was a little too contrived or overcooked, they helped me have some emotional investment in the fates of their mouthy characters.

It was Christina Sergeant who plays an older Ling and the ghostly narrator of Dreams, however, who truly commanded the stage that evening and anchored the production. As with Loong, I've sometimes found the way Sergeant speaks to be a problem when trying to access her characters. Her speech is usually too perfect and precise, her accent, too specific and strong. Here, however, she had completely transformed her voice to haunting effect and the transformation was complemented by remarkable work from the make-up, costume and lighting team as well as the way Sergeant carried herself as an old woman weighed down with regret and possessing only the smallest spark of hope as she looks back on her life. It was her character - the quiet yet evocative way it was written, presented and performed - that bridged the two worlds of the play best.

I did wonder as I left the play, however, what the experience would have been like for members of the audience who were coming in with different expectations and amounts of background knowledge. After all, there must have been people watching Dreams without any prior exposure to Wong's works. Might they have found the clash of moods less disconcerting? Perhaps the jarring moods had been thrown into sharper relief for me because of my sensitivity to Wong's aesthetic (I count myself as a fan). Having said that, I am still not fan enough apparently, because, at many points in the play, members of the audience burst into laughter at what I presume were references to aspects of Wong's work or life that I was unfamiliar with. For these people, the elements of humour laced into the play by Chong (such as the film crew) would have been amplified by these additional in-jokes. For example, when Ling reveals to Trish that she loves her best friend's husband, a moment I found quite affecting, laughter erupted from some members of the audience. I'm not sure if this was a reference to a film by Wong or whether these audience members were simply already In The Mood for Laughs.

Regardless, while Dreams is by no means an unmissable work on the level of the company's canonical Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, in its exploration of simple but powerful themes, imaginative direction and high production values, I believe there is still much about the play to recommend it to any theatregoer.


"The theme of dreaming as the intersection between waking and sleeping, between living in the world of reality and the world of memory and fantasy, which playwright / director Chong Tze Chien mines in Dreams, fits Wong's cinematic motifs perfectly."

Credits

Director / Playwright / Set Designer: Chong Tze Chien

Production Manager: Joanna Goh

Lighting Designer: Lim Woan Wen

Sound Designer: Darren Ng

Puppet Designers / Conceptualists: Oliver Chong, Tan Beng Tian, Ong Kian Sin

Stage Manager: Cecilia Chow

Asst Stage Manager: Lu Huen

Crew: Huang Xiang Bin

Surtitles Operator: Chiew Jing Wen

Sound Engineer: Eugene Foo

Master Electrician / Follow-spot Operator: Alan Loh

Make-up Artist: Haslina Ismail

Production Administrator: Natalie Chai

Voice Overs: Zachery Tan, Lim Woan Wen, Oliver Chong

Cast: Serene Chen, Christian Sergeant, Karen Tan, Loong Seng Onn, Tan Beng Tian, Ong Kian Sin, Oliver Chong, Ang Hui Bin

More Reviews of Productions by The Finger Players

More Reviews by Kenneth Kwok

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