>reviewed by daniel teo

>date: 8 jun 2000
>time: 9:30pm
>venue: zouk
>rating: ***

>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.


With audiences getting jaded on the all-so-clever plays churned out by our ingenious theatre groups, promises of a multi-media experience seem to be the defining chasm any theatre piece has to cross before it can be labeled as "avant-garde".

So along with Alice, we tumble down the rabbit hole to find ourselves in Zouk surrounded by the denizens of Wonderless Land. Surrounded by bizarre mutations of the cute characters in the original Lewis Carroll story, it was a midsummer's nightmare of subversion. And we start on Alice's journey of self-discovery, her odyssey into this strange terrain - and ultimately into her own psyche.

Using Zouk was especially apt as the venue where the characters frolic and make merry. Like the Zouk inhabitants who party on the very same platforms every night, the entire cast was determined to make sure everyone was having a good time. From grabbing some unsuspecting bystanders to flirting shamelessly with others, the cast was having a riot of fun provoking stodgy Singaporeans into spontaneity. With their outlandish costumes made out of the strangest designs and material, it was a surreal experience watching the cast prance around like school children let loose in the playground.

>>'One wonders if it would have been better to stage it properly at a conventional, albeit less interesting, venue and setting'

Using Dario Fo and wife's original script, the play plunged right into the heart of the matter -the emancipation of women. Alice first appears dazed and confused but before long she breaks into a run with everyone behind her. Screaming condemnations and strident disapproval, the mob yells at Alice while she tries to flee from her tormentors. At the zenith of this abuse, the Queen appears and starts hurling the same put downs - "You are a disgrace, Alice!" It's ironic that Alice's first instinct when seeing the Queen is to embrace her while muttering. "Mother, mother." Yet her call to the womb is rejected as the Queen/Mother spurns her. Discarded by her very own kind, Alice escapes to the rabbit hole. Soon she meets the Monkey and Piglet who try to record a pornographic version of her life. And then she meets the Dog and proceeds to get (too) intimate with it. After that she meets the prince in a black diver's suit... the carousel goes on and on.

Dealing with a plethora of themes and materials, director Debra Teng cleverly avoided allowing the play to be dragged down by the potential density of it all. Keeping it whimsically jocular yet provocative, she made sure that the play touched the audience at the right places but did so lightly. The audience was constantly entertained, not only by the witty lines, but also by the kaleidoscopic array of colours, noise and activity. Audience participation was strongly encouraged (or rather forced) by cast members' mingling with anybody standing close enough to fall prey to them. It helped that lines were sharp with the oomph that was needed to drive the point in and also that the risqué humour was so in sync with the venue - "That's (Monkey, scratching his head) his way of wanking: he's an intellectual". The lines were bitingly caustic and potent at the right moments.

Certain cast members brought their performance beyond the ordinary and proved that even if the play wasn't named after them, it sure as hell was going to be their party. Sheila Wyatt was regal and awesome as the Queen, giving Kumar a run for his money with her diva stances, Madonna-gone-wrong kimono gown and Marge-Simpson-on-a-bad-day hairdo. Even though she appeared sporadically throughout, her presence was a scene-stealer every time. Ben Matthews as Monkey was suitably comic with his malleable body and hilarious facial expressions.

As the archetypal female voyage into the zeitgeist, ALICE IN WONDERLESS LAND raised many questions about the social construction of women, how women are normalised into submission. Yet at the same time, there is a certain hunger even at the end of it all. With such a wealth of material presented, it was a surprise that more was not done to explore the issues at hand. While it could be argued that it is futile to go in-depth when the venue and structure of the play were inherently unsuitable for long pensive probing, it does make one wonder if it would have been better to stage it properly at a conventional, albeit less interesting, venue and setting?

Yes Alice gets to get her war cry: "I'm not a thing. I'm a woman and I'm proud to be a woman!" Yes we get to see how hypocritical society can be while trumpeting female suffrage: "They talk about liberation and rights, and then they screw you!" And yes we certainly see women are made unwilling seductresses and strumpets of prurient minds: "Covering yourself up? Don't tell me you are ashamed!" But it stops at that, afraid of treading further. Maybe Debra Teng was too careful not to burden the audience with too much, but then too little of a good thing was certainly just as cruel.

At the same time, Chia Pei Qui as Alice had problems fleshing out her character. While she was adequate as the hapless Alice flummoxed by her brave new world, she was not skillful enough to portray emotions beyond her wide-eyed ingénue look. Added together, it gave the whole production a certain incompleteness.