>LOVE VALOUR COMPASSION by Layang Merah Theatre Group

>reviewed by james koh

>date: 31 mar 2000
>time: 8pm
>venue: the substation
>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.


No, LOVE VALOUR COMPASSION is not the award winning play by Terence McNally, which was made into a film a couple of years back. Neither is it a Mandarin play based and inspired by McNally's. Instead, this debut production by Layang Merah Theatre Group comprises of 2 original Mandarin plays - 'Dance Me to My Song' and 'The Wife and The Lover '. The only link to McNally's play is that both deal with gay characters and the crisis of the AIDS epidemic.

'Dance Me to My Song' (** out of 5*) is inspired by the novel 'Borrowed Time' by Paul Monette and Martin Sherman's 'Alive and Kicking'. Gay theatre can be broadly separated into two types: one group celebrates the flamboyant difference between the straight and the queer lifestyle; the other type attempts to assert the ordinariness and normality of being gay - that is gay relationships are the same as straight ones, the only difference is that one loves the member of the same sex. 'Dance Me to My Song' belongs to the latter group, which chronicles the life of an HIV positive singer/songwriter and his relationship with an older man - who becomes his companion and mentor -- and their attempts to face their uncertain future bravely together.

Snapshots of their lives were enacted on stage - from their first meeting, through the development of their relationship and finally to the songwriter's death. It is to this effect that the use of multi-media was cleverly employed. From the slides that depicted a trip to the beach to a short film segment that revealed their day to day activities, scenes of how the characters coped with living with AIDS -- from surfing the web for the latest medical information on AIDS - were intersected with scenes of the lovers attempting to forge a new relationship together, as seen through their charmingly informal banter.

But what could have been an incendiary play that dealt with the trauma of living with AIDS and yet affirming the right to be gay, of highlighting the tension between an acceptance of inevitable death and an immediate desire to survive, of ultimately learning to celebrate the achievements of the living and mourning the dead - on the terms of gay culture - was not to be.

Instead, this was a strangely distant production that placed its characters in a world of its own, a world that was too calm and mannered to present any form of dramatic urgency or emotional anguish such that the audience was engaged. Like pictures or postcards, the various vignettes were nice to look at, interesting to observe for a while, yet in the end quite superficial. Moreover, like looking at a photograph, the audience was not allowed to enter this cocoon, one in which its sole relationship did not have any resonance outside of the atmospherics of this private world. Their friends and family (and even the audience) appeared to be cut off from them, such that the world they inhabited was highly inward looking, remote and removed from any social connection with the outside.

>>'The script by local writer, Ng Wai Choy, was full of fine nuances that exposed the complex layers beneath the characters'

One of the reasons for the lack of engagement was that dramatic conflict and tension inherent in the characters' lives were not focussed but were allowed to be thinly spread out. This diluted any form of dramatic impetus or build up that might have taken place. Even scenes of pivotal dramatic interest -like when the older man accused the younger one that the latter would not even have given him a second look if the latter was not HIV positive - were not mined or developed for their dramatic potential. The play did not deal tangibly with the little earthquakes that disrupt the contradictory life of not only being gay but being HIV positive as well in a pre-Stonewall environment that is Singapore.

The climax of the play - the death of the songwriter - was simply acted out while a poem was read out, an attempt to perhaps prevent such a scene from delving too much into melodrama. Despite a passionate rendition of the poem, immediate engagement with the audience was lost, as the emotional intensity of such a scene was mediated by a poem that was at times too lyrical and obtuse.

But it has to be said that for a large part, the lack of audience engagement was due to the lack of chemistry between the actors, who though were competent enough, were unable to create between them a convincing and passionate desire for each other. Sexual frankness was missing - it took a stretch of imagination to believe that they were lovers, and not just simply good friends. But more importantly, you just did not believe that these characters could hurt each other and therefore feel any pain.

It is ironic that the scenes from the slides and the film segment appeared more naturalistic, more sincere and genuine than the scenes where the actors were on stage, as the former unknowingly rendered the latter too theatrical, too posed and mannered.

Cringing melodrama alert! During the beginning of 'The Wife and The Lover' (**** out of 5*), the eponymous wife of the play walks around her the flat of her ex-husband, who had just died from an AIDS related illness, looking sad and melancholic, while the tune of 'You Don't Bring Me Flowers' is played in all its weepy strings and cheesy sentiment.

Fortunately, what could have been a piece of melodrama taken from a typical television serial, turned out to be a funny and moving play that dealt with the unlikely friendship between the ex-wife of the deceased and his present gay lover. Taking the clearing up of the house of the deceased after the funeral as a starting point, this was a dialogue-driven play that maintained dramatic momentum and audience interest by having not only a strong, subtle and well thought-out script but also superb acting.

The script by local writer, Ng Wai Choy, was full of fine nuances that exposed the complex layers beneath the characters, as well as revealing the at times tender, at times antagonistic relationship between them. The inclusion of a small son by the deceased and his ex-wife only added to the complicated relationship. It was full of sentimental nostalgia and funny one liners as the characters argued, bitched and bantered about gender politics, love and life, as well as finally accepting each other's position within this strange love triangle between them and the deceased.

Chen Bifeng as the wife was all tough on the outside, yet gave hints of vulnerability with the quiver of her lips, the unshed tears in her eye, or through her convincing emotional breakdown when she realised the love her ex-husband had for his son. Meanwhile Wang De-Liang as the gay lover was all brittle and edgy, yet managed to convey his sadness and anguish at having lost his lover through the flash of his eyes or through the slight quiver in his voice. And in the climax of the play where he described the death of his lover, his ability to convey the utmost sense of genuine emotional poignancy made his suffering and pain all the more human and real.

Despite the somewhat idealistic notion of the gay character in the second play - that all society needs is time to accept homosexuality - if such a friendship between the wife and the lover can be forged through mutual patience and understanding, then perhaps, a more tolerant society can indeed be formed through love, valour and compassion.