>COMPLETELY WITH/OUT CHARACTER by The Necessary Stage

>reviewed by kenneth kwok

>date: 11 may 1999
>time: 8pm
>venue: the drama centre
>rating: ***1/2

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

                           
>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.
 

>>>>>HIS HEART WILL GO ON

Maggie, one of the members of the audience who took part in the Question-and-Answer segment, said that in her 15 years of living in Singapore as an expatriate, she had never been to see a piece of Singapore theatre. Until now. One can only presume that this is due to the very different nature of COMPLETELY WITH/OUT CHARACTER, The Necessary Stage's latest effort. It is this very nature that makes it difficult to assess the success or otherwise of this production.

As a play as such, it was solid without being spectacular. Although some of the scenes came across as mawkish and overly sentimental - can the use of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey's "When You Believe" be anything but? - generally, the play packed a powerful punch in the way it constantly undercut and destabilized itself: we have Paddy, the first and currently only Singapore to 'come out' publicly as being HIV positive, dressed as a clown, complete with colourful facial make-up and ridiculously huge flippers on his feet, going to visit a dying friend in the hospital. Paddy then proceeds to share with the audience intimate details of his perhaps more morbid experiences, such as his trip to buy a casket, getting his obituary picture taken at Bugis Junction; but always, his anecdotes are warm and funny, and sparkling with Paddy's distinctive camp sensibility.

>>'No matter how dark things get; we have Paddy to thank for reminding us that we can choose life, and indeed, love, over death.'

It will take me a very long time to forget the image I have now of Paddy "slaaaaaaping the Ah Lian" who had threatened him and quickly pressing the 'close' button on the control panel of the elevator, Paddy giggling and screeching the whole time. Paddy is a man who has obviously chosen to celebrate life over death, and it is the segments where Paddy shares the happiness of being alive that he is most convincing. When things take a more serious turn, they are less so; here the play sometimes borders on unnecessary preachiness (especially when one considers that it is pretty much a case of preaching to the converted anyway) and a few scenes appeared formulaic; elsewhere Paddy sounds like he was on a podium presenting an over-rehearsed speech.

In any other production, these cliches would have reeked of insincerity. But because of the nature of this play, because we have Paddy himself telling us what we know to be his true story, we are forced to accept these cliches as fact; we know that is precisely what they are. When Paddy tells us about his trip to the karaoke bar with his cousin, and how she bursts into tears when he sings Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" from the film, "Titanic", there is none of the over-blown histrionics that one would associate with the film itself but even if there was, we would accept it more kindly because we know that it is not manipulation or sensationalism but a real event unfolding before us. In effect, the play cannot be pretentious or insincere by virtue of its painful honest nature.

That is why Paddy's role in COMPLETELY WITH/OUT CHARACTER is so vital. Because he renders moot any argument that this play is merely "art", with all the superficial glamour that word conjures up. When at one point, he removes his robe and stands silently before the audience, revealing his emaciated and wasted body, glamour is the last thing on anyone's mind. There is only truth. The truth of what it is like to live as a person with HIV or AIDS in Singapore, where many turn away.

Looking at it as a piece of theatre, a piece of art, yes, there is indeed much to recommend about COMPLETELY WITH/OUT CHARACTER: the interesting use of multi-media to screen carefully chosen slides behind Paddy as he spoke, wove rich and subtle subtext into the fabric of Paddy's story; Paddy's performance in itself was confident and poised and the script, punchy and lively. And what we might say to be the flaws of the production were arguably inevitable; in this case, the art had to serve a bigger goal than art for art's sake. Playwright and director had to take into consideration that the audience would comprise people from all walks of life and theatre-going experience and the last thing COMPLETELY WITH/OUT CHARACTER could do was to alienate or offend anyone, forcing it to lack a certain subtlety. Another consideration was the honesty with which Paddy wanted to confront the issue of living with AIDS, warts and all; if the script was also too schmaltzy at points, it's only because real life - and that is what COMPLETELY WITH/OUT CHARACTER offered - can be schmaltzy too.

And real life, thank God, is also always full of bravery and hope and flashes of light, no matter how dark things get; we have Paddy to thank for reminding us that. That we can choose life, and indeed, love, over death.