I'd read the synopsis of Frozen Angels in the papers, so I figured I knew what to expect: another issue-based episodic play, in the grand ol' Necessary Stage tradition that's given us shows from Land to Abuse Suxxx!!! to Separation 40 and Mobile. This time, the play would take the form of three stories performed by the same two actors in multiple roles, exploring the theme of stem cell technology - lip service, maybe, to the medical theme of this year's National University of Singapore Arts Festival. I guessed it'd be a minor work in the company's repertoire, exploring new science with old dramatic tropes.
But boy was I wrong. This show is dynamite, not just because it's well crafted and performed, but because it's new - it represents a sudden departure from what we understood to be the current direction of TNS aesthetics, an exciting new path, integrating trenchant intimacy with organised chaos and lush technology.
Let's just start with the multimedia/set design. The actors stand before a foldable butterfly screen that covers the breadth of the stage, at times moving behind it, playing with the size and scope of their shadows, playing with presence and absence. Multimedia artist Loo Zihan and medialogist Jozsef Vamosi sit close by, broadcasting their images on the screen, and what images: crackling and popping with rawness and beauty, fleshy interiors and concrete landscapes, flashing, shifting, marvellously complementing the live action.
It's possible to say there's a new generation of technology in drama at work here. There is interactivity: actress Cheryl Lee argues with two images of herself on both sides of the screen. There are games of trompe l'oeil: what appears to be a video of the actors sitting upright on a park bench turns out to be a live feed of them backstage, lying horizontally on a perspective background drawn on the floor. There's even realism: a teenage couple court each other via online chat in the cutesified, telegraphic English of genuine netspeak, the screen projection displaying their coy games of backspace and enter.
But most importantly, there's heart. The show begins with the actors onstage in civilian clothing, Cheryl Lee seated, sobbing, Kelvin Zhang standing, smiling. Cheryl describes her father's dialysis treatments; her sense of helplessness; how once he called to tell her he was a hundred dollars short for payment. Kelvin describes his life as a diabetic: not disabled, just different; lifting his shirt to show off the insulin pump affixed to his flesh. At this point, the audience can't tell if it's truth or fiction, but the directness of the emotion strikes home - it disorients our dramatic experience, it disarms us.
And interestingly, there's no lecture-style explanation of stem cell technology in the play - just stories, playing with the themes of science and disease. A 200 year-old couple (the same online teenagers we'd seen earlier, still in love) struggle with the fact that one of them has grown tired of immortality. A widower father remains locked in grief while his daughter grows up and leaves him with a maid, who in turn leaves him with her own daughter - no mention of stem cell tech here; just an odd resonance of the "cloning" of caregiving women to keep a body reluctantly alive. A black market trader has an affair with a scientist, selling him leftover egg cells from her lab, then goes berserk when he can do nothing to help her when her mother falls sick with leukaemia. (This last tale is told with a particularly piquant twist, as the sci-fi characters speak in a streetwise idiolect of Mandarin, Hokkien and Singlish. This is what happens when technology goes into the heartland.)
The stories weave in and out of each other, actors changing their stylised costumes with clean precision, their identities strangely echoing through their transformations. The form is important: playwright Haresh Sharma does not overwrite, instead allowing the silences to speak, for movements or accents to denote a change of character, and for the projected images to pull their weight as part of the dialogue of ideas. Video is the paramount element in one especially moving scene, as the screen displays the mise-en-scene of a void deck funeral, its tables slowly filling with ghostlike copies of the two actors. The scientist stands on stage, watching as her dead mother (an excellent cameo by Goh Guat Kian) advances slowly toward the camera, dressed in a bridal gown, blessing her, reassuring her of her happiness.
It's by now commonplace now to play with video wizardry in drama - The Necessary Stage has done it in shows like godeatgod and BOTE, TheatreWorks in Play On Earth and Dance Dance Dance and The Theatre Practice in Mama Looking For Her Cat. Yet in all these works, the most innovative forms of multimedia feel vaguely disconnected and conceptual, even gimmicky; problematically distanced from the real meat and soul of drama. (TNS's more recent works, Fundamentally Happy and Good People, have by contrast been stunningly moving and used no video at all.)
In Frozen Angels, there's initially a coldness to the tech, but over the course of the play it grows more and more organic, eventually blending seamlessly into the flow of action and emotion. By the finale, a sequence of images literally chases the actors across the stage, the characters of different story strands meeting, fleetingly, abandoning and re-discovering their props. With this play, frigid technology is finally melted, is finally alive.
During the talkbacks, director Alvin Tan explained how his company had seized the chance to perform in the NUS Arts Festival because it seemed to offer a safe space to experiment. The university had offered funding, rehearsal space and research resources - but most importantly, perhaps, it did so without demanding a grandiose, high-profile performance; unusual conditions in a time where corporate and government sponsors market the arts as an industry, as a parade.
The Necessary Stage wasn't the only professional group doing work in this festival, either - experimental and collaborative pieces were staged by choreographer Daniel Yeung, performance group Collective Mayhem and the Singapore Chinese Orchestra. Similarly, this year's Singapore Management University Arts Festival involved a who's who of professional contemporary artists on the island. University festivals might end up being an important part of our cultural scene here, a haven for edgier work that nonetheless accommodates and co-operates with the young and amateur.
Was there anything wrong with the performance? Perhaps I thought a
few lines of the play a trifle too maudlin at times, and for my own
perverse reasons I wanted a clearer explication of stem cell science.
One surprise was that the company's casting of NUS undergrads
in the two lead roles did not lead to diminished quality: while Kelvin
was a little hard to swallow in his guise as an old man, he held sway
in the comedic-then-conflicted role of the ah beng-like black marketer,
while Cheryl excelled in all her parts, alternately exuding innocence,
spunk and suffering. Amidst the tech, these two shone with their own
talent for drama.
Tiny, subtle and intimate: this is the best theatre I've seen this year (and I know it's only March, but I see a lot of shows). Director Alvin Tan allows his trio of storylines to fold and weave into each other organically, playing an exquisite game of presences and absences as young actors Kevin Zhang and Cheryl Lee slip in and out of costumed characters, playing the 200 year-old lovers, the aged father/the daughter/the maid, the black market merchant/the scientist. The play's superficially about stem cell technology, but in fact it reaches down to grasp at the roots of the human condition: love and death, which even the promise of eternal life through science may not conquer. Big props also to multimedia artist Loo Zihan and medialogist Jozsef Vamosi: their dual screen projections and live video feeds work seamlessly with the live action, with the actors making use of the space behind the screen as much as that in front of it. Though hidden away in the programme of the NUS Arts Festival, it's clear that this work points toward a new direction in the work of The Necessary Stage. It is miniature, it is evocative, it is important.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /