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Production

Angel-ism

Company

panggung ARTS and Drama Box

Reviewer

Kenneth Kwok

Date

09/08/2008

Time

8.00pm

Place

Drama Centre Black Box

Rating

***

Calling All Angels

Unsurprisingly, references to angels are rife in this play. Songs like the Eurythmics' There Must Be An Angel Playing With My Heart and the Scorpions' Send Me An Angel are used as transition music between scenes and the central storyline of Angel-ism is that of four angels going about their daily work in Heaven under the instruction of the Almighty. The quartet, however, aren't dressed like traditional angels with halo and wings and this works nicely in the play's context as the more human appearance of the actors reminds us that the ambitious Angel-ism, while ostensibly about the divine, is much more interested in very human concerns. What makes angels persevere as symbols in art is that they speak to fundamental needs: angels symbolize not only unconditional love and protection but our natural instinct to try and make sense of why bad things happen in the world.

The Necessary Stage's seminal godeatgod grappled with similar themes soon after 9/11 and Angel-ism speaks so powerfully to us today as well because we continue to live in a world that appears to be on the brink of violent collapse. Every day, the newspapers are filled with stories about natural disasters, wars and human suffering on a scale seemingly beyond that previously imagined or endured. In such difficult times of fear, paranoia and insecurity, it is not surprising that people turn to the divine for answers, to seek protection, to find peace. Angel-ism starts off with the four actors walking up to the audience, sitting and standing among us as they take turns to recite, in soft, measured tones and bright plastic smiles, passages that sound like they have been lifted out of a self-help book, a guide to new-age living or passages from a religious text. I am discomfited because I am cynical of anything with evangelical overtones but at the same time, as I sit there, I understand especially how alluring religions, self-help gurus, or the words of a Rhonda Byrne, Paul Coelho or even Oprah Winfrey, must be in this day and age. It is, after all, so much easier to allow yourself to be placed under someone's protection and guidance than it is to have to face the harsh reality of contemporary life on your own: method can always be found in madness if one simply ascribes it to God's "mysterious ways".

Religion, however, does not have all the answers, as the bickering angels find themselves unable to agree even on what they assume initially is a very simple question: what is right and wrong? This is expressed with a backlit and shirtless Helmi Fita, standing in front of a large pair of silver wings, his mouth wide open in a silent scream, his every muscle tense, and the words "good" and "bad" scrawled in white across his chest, divided by a vertical line. It is also one of the riffs that runs through the play, most poignantly in reference to Singapore's very own guardian angel, our founding father, who is imagined here to be at death's door. How is he to be judged in the end? - and whom will we turn to when he is gone?

Playwrights Mohd Zulfadli Mohd Rashid and Danny Yeo do not offer us any concrete answers. They are more interested in taking us on a journey of exploration through different stories. The mood across these episodes is generally haunting and sombre but it can be light and playful as well, as with the surreal "Slap of God" sequence and the parody of the Gatsby advert featuring Kimura Takuya. These comic scenes, together with some memorable moments like the muscular Helmi camping it up in his white shirt and black bustier, tie and stockings, or Rei Poh quietly standing on a pedestal and blowing soapy bubbles while dressed in a white boxing robe, are crucial to the success of the play as a whole. This is because, although they do not always align with the themes of the play, their punchiness helps sustain audience interest. This is especially vital due to the rambling nature of some of the vignettes and the surprisingly slow and clumsy transitions between scenes which break a lot of the play's momentum - I am still unsure why the directors thought that bulky equipment transport cases would work well as movable sets. The play is additionally stabilized by an able cast who, for the most part, rise to the occasion. This is a demanding work because of the shifting theatrical modes employed throughout the play: actors have to engage in everything from musical to physical theatre, from audience interaction to naturalistic acting. I applaud the actors for their gumption and spunk though they are a little too heavy-handed and obvious in places and their timing sometimes lacks finesse. What I like most about the actors in Angel-ism, however, is how well they work as an ensemble, aptly symbolized by a scene where all four, like puppies, cuddle up close to one another and sleep. As in panggung ARTS' inaugural production Ma'ma Yong earlier this year, actors seem very much at ease with one another, as if they are genuine friends who have come together to create a work they all sincerely believe in. Shida Mahadi and Xi Ai may not be as familiar to audiences as theatre veteran Helmi or rising star Rei (whom I've already seen in no less than six plays in the last nine months) but you never feel that anyone is dominating or retreating into the background.

What I personally found most fascinating about this play though is how it continues Singapore theatre's growing interest in our country's multilingual heritage (for example, the recent National Language Class). Co-directors Aidli "Alin" Mosbit and Kok Heng Leun said in a video interview that the larger objective of Angel-ism was to create a piece of theatre that was truly Singaporean and I think they have succeeded on two fronts. Firstly, they have clearly drawn from the modern Singapore theatre tradition of devised work that has marked many local productions, most notably those by the aforementioned The Necessary Stage. Regardless of whether this episodic play was co-created through rehearsals by the actors or developed largely by the playwrights on their own, Angel-ism is distinctly post-modern; it feels organic, spontaneous and alive with ideas. Secondly, if
Angel-ism owes a debt to The Necessary Stage's Alvin Tan and Haresh Sharma, then it also owes one, as festival dramaturg Alfian Sa'at argues in the programme notes, to the late Kuo Pao Kun, particularly his Mama Looking for her Cat which illustrates so well how the sound of the collision of different cultures and languages is the true voice of multi-cultural Singapore. It is not the individual languages of English, Mandarin, Malay or Tamil that are uniquely Singaporean but the cacophony that results when they rattle and hum against each other.

In Angel-ism, the multi-ethnic cast speaks a mix of English, Malay and Mandarin, and what is interesting is that, unlike many other plays since the advent of surtitles in the theatre, there is minimal translation provided. Here, simply hearing the sounds of the different languages is as important a part of the theatrical experience as comprehending what each individual word means. After all, this is a play about the blurring of lines between right and wrong, man and woman, the divine and the earthly. Is it so surprising that we should experience this breaking down of barriers in terms of language as well? It is to the credit of the playwrights and directors that they do not take the conceit so far that it reaches the point of frustration for the audience. Most of the text is still in our lingua franca, English, and live translations are usually provided where it matters. In fact, these occasional live translations (as Shida speaks in Malay, for example, Xi recites the same lines simultaneously in English) add considerably to the experience. This lyrical overlapping offers a different metaphor: languages not as clashing swords but as the winds beneath wings. It is interesting to note, however, that no translations are offered for two of the stories performed entirely in Mandarin but that the Malay story is punctuated frequently with lines in English. If another idea behind the inclusion of Mandarin and Malay text is to tear down the presumptuous tyrant that is English, it is telling then that Mandarin is presented as just as chauvinistic as English while the Malay language is more accommodating. I'm not sure how conscious a decision this actually was by the directors and playwrights but it was certainly something I found very striking.

First Impression

Angel-ism reminds me a lot of The Necessary Stage's godeatgod. Both plays riff on the theme of divine beings as our guardians, and the natural human instinct to try and make sense of why bad things happen in the world. Both also place a lot of emphasis on the creation of strong visual images: most striking was a backlit Helmi Fita with large silver wings, his mouth wide open in a silent scream, his every muscle tense, and the words "good" and "bad" scrawled across his chest, divided by a vertical line. This script by playwrights Mohd Zulfadli Mohd Rashid and Danny Yeo, however, is more pointed than godeatgod and specifies the context of this multi-lingual piece as a multi-cultural Singapore where our very own "guardian angel", a certain founding father, is imagined to be at death's door. The play is rather rough around the edges and flounders at times as it makes its way across a series of short, largely unconnected scenes but there are enough moments of inspiration (for example, "The Slap of God") to see the play through and, on the whole, it strikes a nice balance between somber contemplation and playful parody.


"Angel-ism speaks so powerfully to us today because we continue to live in a world that appears to be on the brink of violent collapse"

Credits

Playwrights: Mohd Zufadli Mohd Rashid and Danny Yeo

Directors: Aidli ‘Alin' Mosbit and Kok Heng Leun

Set Designer: Najib Soiman

Lighting Designer: Kala Raman

Costume Designer: Serena Pang

Producer: Elnie S Mashari

Associate Producer: Molizah Mohd Mohter

Production Manager: Huang Xiangbin

Stage Manager: Nur Khairiyah

Assistant Stage Manager: Muhammad Hafidz

Technical Director: Helmi Fita

Production Coordinator: Athena Tan

Sound Operator: Junainah Yusoff

Video Operator: Salene

Lighting Operator: Ho Kian Tong

Cast: Helmi Fita, Xi Ai, Shida Mahadi, Rei Poh

Photography: Law Kian Yan

More Reviews of Productions by Drama Box

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.