There are plays I adore with a passion and plays I detest with a passion. It's easy to write about either: when there's something I desperately need to express, words just flow out of me whether they're redolent of roses or vitriol.
Sadly, Mama's Wedding falls into neither category. There's barely anything wrong with it, yet it just misses the mark, never eliciting a strong emotional response from its viewers, never actually giving me a reason to care about its characters and their problems. It's not a disaster, but it sure as hell isn't a triumph either.
Mind you, I wanted this play to succeed. It's written by Marc Beau de Silva, who's been advertised as "Malaysia's hottest new playwright" - and whether or not that's true, I'm in firm support of more work by both Malaysians and young people being shown here. It's also billed as our first all-Eurasian play, which is pretty cool, given that there's barely any examination of genuine Eurasian culture in popular Singapore consciousness.
And y'know, it does succeed, sort of, kind of. The show's structured around a phone call from Emily (Candice de Rozario) in Penang to her sister Girlie (Carina Hales) who's moved to Singapore, urging her to come back to attend their mother's second wedding. With easy grace, it comes off as a remarkable portrait of middle-class Eurasian life in Malaysia, painted in rich detail, from the gorgeously naturalistic set to the mixed Malay/English dialogue to the multifarious anecdotes about marrying Chinese men, pickling achar and conversing with aunties who only speak Kristang. (The whole cast is pretty light-skinned, so the "hitam manis" bits about the politics of skin colour fall a little flat, but we can overlook that.)
Samantha Scott-Blackhall animates de Silva's casual, garrulous dialogue by having her actors run through miniscule, quotidian chores - folding clothes, applying facial masks, cutting paper to make paper chains and so on - creating a comfortable state of intimacy with the audience. It feels as if we're intruding not on the lives of three unknown sisters, but on those of our siblings.
Yet that very sense of comfort is what frustrates the action of this play. Emily isn't actually desperate for Girlie to come back. Girlie isn't scandalised by her mother's remarriage either: they're agreed that their biological father was a lousy philanderer, and there's nothing objectionable about this second Chinese man her mother's after. The only problem is that Mama hasn't invited Girlie herself because she's pissed off that Girlie used her as inspiration for a wicked witch character in a children's book she's done.
There's no deep psychological scarring at the root of this, either; no soap opera tales of rape or molest or abuse or secret adoption or even excessive examination pressure. Mama just happens to have a very strong personality, one that none of the girls can escape, even if they relocate to other countries.
Where's the histrionics? Where's the melodrama? Where - pardon my essentialism - is the drama? There's never a real reason to want to weep or scream or slap a character in the face. (There are ample occasions to laugh, though - the impressions of pointy-breasted aunties singing in choir are very ticklesome. Way too many punning repetitions of the word "bitch" for good taste, though.)
Minor altercations do occur in the play - Emily reveals how she's torn up about wanting to break up with her girlfriend, and gets huffy at one point when she finds out Girlie pre-emptively outed her to Mama as a lesbian. And of course, there's the downtrodden Betty, who mooches around in her Save the Animals T-shirt, dumbly suffering the teasing of her big sisters. Elizabeth Tan plays this character to subtle, subdued effect: it is a touching moment when she finally musters up the courage to address Girlie directly on the phone, telling her that the sisters must stick together. But if she's experiencing any real sadness, we're not given a key to it: we don't empathise.
No drama. So what if Girlie doesn't attend the wedding? The stakes are never high enough for me to care. The sisters don't even seem to need the family terribly much - they could all survive if everything were to break up tomorrow.
Of course, at the end of the show, Girlie conciliatorily agrees to attend - even displays a little denouement of a monologue, then puts down the phone and goes to bed. And we, the audience, finally walk out of the theatre, amazed that it's only 9.15, because the show felt so bloody long.
It occurs to me that de Silva might've been aiming for a Chekhovian style of drama, where we watch the everyday follies of a group of average people, rarely witnessing any show-stopping dramatic events onstage. But even in Three Sisters, there's a hidden longing in everyone's hearts, a profound discontent that haunts the play. Light and bubbly, Mama's Wedding never plumbs the depths of human desire that a good play should.
I haven't seen or read other plays by this playwright; I imagine I'll eventually have the chance to, as long as he keeps at his craft. ACTION Theatre, in the meantime, has to engage in a little more dramaturgical winnowing and development when it comes to its scripts. This play was entertaining and informative, but that's not enough. A play must also speak to the heart. It must also move us.
There's hardly anything that's obviously wrong with this production - I appreciate the naturalism of the direction and set design, the casual, garrulous flow of the dialogue, as well as the play's dedication to presenting a slice of life from the middle-class Malaysian Eurasian community. What bothers me is that I'm never given a real reason to care about the characters' problems. The stakes just aren't high enough for me to be heartbroken if Girlie doesn't attend her mother's second wedding, or if Emily breaks up with her girlfriend, or if Betty can't gain her sisters' approval. (As for the warm-up act, Sarong Party Boy, perhaps the less said the better. Claudio Girardi would probably be better off deriving comedy from actual experience, not some fictitious conception of what Singapore women of the four major racial groups are supposed to be like.)
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /