>A PERFECT GANESH by the Singapore Repertory Theatre

>reviewed by kenneth kwok

>date: 22 jan 2000
>time: 2:30pm
>venue: suntec city auditorium
>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.


Let me begin this review by saying that I enjoyed the Singapore Repertory Theatre's production of A PERFECT GANESH and recommend it heartily. It was uplifting, life-affirming and lots of other good things. However, my otherwise-perfect enjoyment was marred by the fact that good as this treatment of Terence McNally's script was, one could not help but feel constantly that it could have been done a lot better. Admittedly, the script which explored the story of two women embarking on a pilgrimage across India to find spiritual healing was itself uneven. While the first act had good pacing and a strong sense of purpose, Act Two meandered about rather lifelessly towards a very plain and predictable ending. It was as if McNally had set up this beautiful story-arc within which he could explore ideas of suffering and forgiveness - of the self by the self - and had poured all his wit and heart into it before realizing that ooops, he have a second act to write as well. Curiously, Solwick's direction matched McNally's script note for note. He captured the light and easy spirit of McNally's writing beautifully until the second act in which he began to mirror the playwright's own lack of focus as well. It was as if both playwright and director had suddenly lost interest in the play at the same time and both just wanted to finish it off as simply as possible.

Elaborate visual set pieces therefore never quite managed to transcend themselves into the truly inspirational. It is worrying when you watch a scene - such as Katharine Brynne purging herself of the anger she feels for the hate-mongers who brutally murdered her gay son, and for herself, by shouting cruses and swear words across a river to listen as they fade away as echoes - that you know should move you and it does, but only to a point because a) you've already seen it all before or worse b) you feel like you've seen it all before although you know you haven't actually. Like watching a Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan movie. Perhaps most worrying of all is when Katharine's son appears as a spirit talking to his mother, and as he recounts his terrible ordeal, and you watch without feeling any sympathy for the son at all. Such was the extent to which Keagan Kang destroyed any sense of humanity in the part he played because he approached it precisely as that, a part. With every word you were aware always that he was acting. In fact, even when playing the part of a homeless leper living on the streets of India with only one line - "Love me!" - he over-emotes to the point that, quite frankly, Katharine isn't the only one who recoils in horror, albeit for different reasons.

>>'All that the performace needed really was just a little polish; and I suspect a lot of what was sagging in this particular show I caught came from first-performance jitters and the technical problems that prompted a late-start'

The two leads played by Shelia Wyatt and Sandy Phillips fared better, with Philips, in particular, putting in a strong, if mannered, performance. Wyatt tended to overplay her vivacious character at some points - think Brenda Blethyn in "Little Voice"; just because a character is over-the-top doesn't mean that your performance should be - but always grounded it back in real feelings during more intimate scenes. However, both did have difficulty sometimes in bringing the audiences into the two different worlds that this play inhabited - the stylized fairy-tale in which the Indian deity Ganesh appears in a variety of disguises to aid them on their pilgrimage: a cleaning lady, a boatsman, a Japanese tourist, and a more naturalistic, so-called Real World setting of interior monologues, broken marriages and lost children - at the different times that the script required as well and for two women who were supposed to have been best friends, Wyatt and Phillips had little discernable chemistry. For a large part of the play, I thought they were simply two women who had bumped into each other at the travel agent.

Remesh Panicker was another who turned in an adequate if not spectacular performance; his whole movement and manner on stage seemed a little awkward, possibly because he was uncomfortable working with the huge elephant's mask across his face, and he often lacked the energy to convince us that he was the ever cheerful, all-smiling Ganesh. In contrast, the star performer of the night, Greg Vinkler in his first Singapore production, had energy to spare. Playing a ridiculously huge number of small roles - his credit is simply "The Man" - he brought such a spark to each of them and was equally memorable and heartbreaking as Harry - a gay man dying of AIDS who befriends Katharine - as he was side-splittingly hilarious as the Indian Butler who mocks the American women in Hindi while smiling broadly and accepting their tips. Indeed, Vinkler was but one of many good things in the show - I'd like in particular to praise the music and set design as well - and although, to a large extent, these compensated for weaknesses in other areas, the final result was ultimately a production that. while good, was hardly perfect.

Having said that, all that the performace needed really was just a little polish; and I suspect a lot of what was sagging in this particular show I caught came from first-performance jitters and the technical problems that prompted a late-start.