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Production

Das Experiment: Black Box

Company

Blank Space Productions

Reviewer

Amos Toh

Date

15/11/2008

Time

8.00pm

Place

The Pavilion, Far East Square

Rating

***

Prison Broke

The psychological thriller, a genre of theatre and movie making flogged unimaginatively and far too many times, manifests once again in the form of Das Experiment, a play based on Mario Giordano's novel, Black Box. This vivid retelling of a human behaviour experiment charts the harrowing experiences of sixteen randomly selected men who transform into prisoners and guards in a simulated setting. Unfortunately, there is too much theatrics and too little theatre in Das Experiment, which eagerly devolves into consequences (terrifying) and tragedy (predictable) against a backdrop of flashing lights and shrill alarms.

The scenes of prisoner abuse are overloaded with the standard motifs of the B-grade horror thriller, which sit uneasily alongside the inevitable invocations of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. Jeffrey Yue's claustrophobic soundtrack of clicks, bangs and whirrs foreshadows and punctuates every scene transition and plot twist, leaving precious little to the audience's imagination. Every door bolted, every rattle of the prison bars and body slammed against the floor worm their way into an already cluttered soundscape, dulling the senses to the anxiety and shock the producers wish to elicit from the performance. And visually, a laboratory backdrop of tangled wires, banks of computers and assorted metallic paraphernalia is far too readily reminiscent of countless cold-sweat action movies and films noirs. Das Experiment's most notable scene - the guards throw a prisoner into the infamous black box and broadcast live footage of the prisoner struggling violently in the cramped space - is textbook sadism reminiscent of the Saw franchise. These scenes play to the sensibilities of the contemporary movie- and theatergoer, who lives in an age rife with shocking yet vague accounts of torture and prisoner abuse. However, they are also cheaply conceived, borrowing heavily from established and well-worn depictions of violence, rather than finding anything new or interesting to say about the subject.

Perhaps some of Das Experiment's pointlessness can be attributed to director Samantha Scott-Blackhall, who attempts to reproduce what are essentially filmic scenes in an exposed theatrical setting, thus imbuing them with an awkward semi-realism. The traumatic shaving of a prisoner's head as part of the guards' torture routine is clumsily handled, and the audience can't help but witness the wig fall off the actor's head into a trash bag. The blows and punches in the climactic fight scene are distinctly rehearsed (at one point, a guard caught in a chokehold blatantly helps a prisoner retrieve his weapon), and thus prone to egregious overacting and unwitting farce. The actors are made to stalk the two-storey stage with antic, purposeless energy, dispersing into one convoluted fight sequence after another. This simulated simulation elicits particularly stilted performances from Koey Foo and Edric Hsu, who can't quite make out their roles on an already restless stage.

However, the misdirection merely obscures a more incriminating neglect. Lost behind the cage-like prison cells are not prisoners, guards or scientists but merely characters - black-line stereotypes incapable of emotional or psychological development. Das Experiment's biggest gimmick is its pair of mad scientists, one willing to pursue his social experiment at all costs, the other increasingly uncertain of its diabolical consequences. As the experiment progresses, theatre veterans Gerald Chew and Beatrice Chia dutifully conduct interviews, question each other's motivations and read from instruction manuals, delivering performances that, while efficient, are devoid of character or nuance.

Despite the colourful histories of the participants in the experiement (including a journalist-turned-taxi-driver and a scowling, tight-lipped military pilot on an "assignment"), they fare no better. As they don hospital gowns and pale uniforms, they are not only stripped of their clothes but their personalities, becoming mere ciphers of the production's well-trodden conclusions about human behaviour. The passive are made to mingle with the aggressive, the introverts with the extroverts; dangerous alliances are forged and improbable friendships struck up. In one of the play's many contrived scenes, the prisoners engage in a raucous game of basketball, pushing and shoving the guards about with callous indifference. More incidents like these spark a fight back from the guards, who brandish their weapons, quell an uprising and enforce a bloody and tyrannical rule on the prisoners. There are no transformations, merely caricatures; no journeys, merely destinations.

From the deliberate setup of the experiment to the phony pop-pop-pop of weapon fire at the end, the actors leave a glaring trail of clues and metaphors that guides us through a catalogue of human ills and faults. The guards' stubborn insistence on reciting the rules develops into a penchant for cruelty: they slam the prisoners against the prison bars, make them bark and grovel like dogs and clean the toilets with their clothes and bare hands. The prisoners are sickened, shaken and angry; some are bludgeoned into submission while others are defiant at their own peril. The lessons of power and control are fairly obvious, and glossed over quickly to make time for the cockamamie plot and consequent melodrama. As the other prisoners fall by the wayside, protagonist Tarek Fahd mounts a foiled and far-fetched attempt to escape: he attempts to leak information of the disastrous experiment to his former media contacts through a wayward guard. The actors' wretched wails, yelps and screams announce every turn of the tedious drama that unfolds; finally, the actors scatter across the set in a high-octane chase that sees blood, guts and bullets spill across the stage.

The production works better when it connects with the raw immediacy of the restaged ordeal. After the guards quell yet another prisoners' uprising, Jonathan Lim assumes the role of a logic-twisting tyrant, spitting insults and orders with obfuscatory self-righteousness. He exhorts the guards to fulfill their duties, and sentences the prisoners to crimes they never committed. The scene is calculative, brutal without being physical, and chilling to watch.

While ambitious in scope, Das Experiment is undone by its slavish attachment to narrative codas, clear parameters and easy answers. It indulges in gratuitous stage action, and its unpleasantness feels manufactured rather than freshly imagined. There are, to be sure, gestures at greater depth, but these are only further manifestations of a formula at work. From a play that promises to venture into "unchartered and exciting territories" [sic], we are entitled to expect more.


"The actors are made to stalk the two-storey stage with antic, purposeless energy, dispersing into one convoluted fight sequence after another."

Credits

Written by Mario Giordano

Adapted for the stage by Claude Girardi and Samantha Scott-Blackhall

Translated by Eva Heinrich

Director: Samantha Scott-Blackhall

Producer: Claude Girardi

Actors: Gerald Chew, Beatrice Chia-Richmond, Jonathan Lim, Rodney Oliveiro, Rick Macivor, Edric Hsu, Oliver Pang, Claude Girardi, Theodor Paulsen, R. Chandran, Jimmy Taenaka, Sazali Othman, Karl Chaundy, Andrew Lua Dai Jun and Koey Foo

Lighting Designer: Vivianti Zasman

Sound Designer: Jeffrey Yue

Production / Stage Manager: Yvonne Yuen

Assistant Stage Manager: Stanley Ng

Technical Manager: Alan Loh

Lighting Operator: Jason Sin

Sound Operator: Ningru Guo

Special Effects: Jimmy Low, The Stunt Production

More Reviews by Amos Toh

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