>POSTCARDS FROM PERSEPHONE by Livid Room Productions

>reviewed by james koh

>date: 17 aug 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.


Can a play be too clever?

Well, in the case of POSTCARDS FROM PERSEPHONE by Livid Room Productions, this was not only an excitingly clever play, but was a play that was clever in being clever. It did not simply exploit various theories and ideas in a bid to show how well-read the playwright was (and she was), but neither was it a highly pretentious play that snubbed its nose at the audience (and it could have been just that). Instead, POSTCARDS FROM PERSEPHONE successfully combined an intellectual rigour of thought with a passionate spirit and emotional tenderness. Unlike the production of 'W' by schism earlier this year, it did not, at times, leave you scratching your head in its rendering of complex arguments.

What it did was to imaginatively reshape ideas - ranging from Lacan to Kristeva -- into captivating stories, so that it was accessible and engaging without having to dumb down for an audience unfamiliar with such ideas.

The main narrative of the play was based on the Greek myth of the kidnap of Persephone by Hades and the subsequent search for her by Demeter (Persephone's mother and the goddess of fertility) - resulting in Demeter's appeal to Zeus for the return of her daughter. The play managed to demythologise this story by rewriting not only the relationship between Hades and Persephone in various different love-hate scenarios, but also by rewriting the mother-daughter relationship between Demeter and Persephone in a series of startling analogies, like that between a feminist poet and her chain-smoking mother.

Meanwhile vivid stories of women were interwoven into this main narrative - like a porn actress who defies the pedantic academic who tries to categorise her brand of sexual freedom, or a Japanese woman who loses her baby in the aftermath of American bombing during World War II, or the alien who takes on the form of a glam 70s superstar. Wise, irreverent and deeply felt, these stories offered glimpses of slightly disturbing yet beautifully crafted worlds, where frames opened up into more frames, mirrors unto mirrors and reflections talked back and crossed over into reality.

>>'This was not only an excitingly clever play, but was a play that was clever in being clever'

Being the debut production of Singapore's first feminist theatre company, the play was a reassertion of often-neglected female identities. Full of stories of tender yet strong, feminist yet feminine heroines, the play revelled in its myriad of different female voices. At times discordant, at times harmonious, these were the wonderfully twisted sounds of the laugh of the Medusa and the song of the sirens. Some might say that the play was reductive in excluding the object of such a feminist discourse - i.e. men. Yet this multitude of voices allowed for a carnivalesque energy that subverted the status quo of patriarchal discourse by its refusal to enter in this very discourse that objectifies women. And by the introduction of another mode of language and meaning in which the female was the centre of this new discourse, the play showed a world beyond gender binaries. To paraphrase one of the stated objectives of this company, it may be a narcissistic enterprise, but definitely worth a go.

The script by Wang Meiyin, a 3rd year Theatre Studies student at Yale University, was filled with wry humour and randy eroticism. Thought-provokingly potent and poetic, the play revealed new complexities and new insights into the female identity by ripping at the core of popular culture and turning gender stereotypes on its head. Wang had an astute ability for writing scenes and stories which extrapolated meaning from the most mundane of situations, like the philosophical contemplation on the idea of time by an anorexic school girl as she waited to eat a grapefruit which was her only meal for the day. It is this balance of detail to avoid triviality, and passion to prevent melodrama that at times made one think of Wang as a young theatrical Jeanette Winterson, especially with her use of wild metaphors, intense language and in-your-face attitude. (In one poem full of learned witticisms, she described the different ways in which housewives, feminists and young girls masturbate). Direction by Wang also managed to maintain dramatic tension throughout suitably.

Together with the acid-jazzy soundtrack and use of multimedia that presented postcards from Persephone written to Demeter from hell, many novel images were presented -- like the jealous girl who threw a fit after she broke into the bedroom of her ex-boyfriend that he shared with his new girlfriend, or the sound and smell of a grapefruit defiantly peeled by the anorexic school girl or the hilarious spoof on the play 'Desdemona'. The two leads were performed by Wang herself and Adelina Ong, last seen as the whiny Julianna in the TCS 5 programme, 'Money'. Ong was reliably able to portray her characters with subtle complexity, at times conveying the mix of the tragic and the pathos with great aplomb. Meanwhile, Wang mesmerised the audience with her naturalness and perfect sense of comic timing. And in various scenes of meta-narrativity, when the two actresses talked to the audience as themselves, or during staged moments of self-reflectivity, the two adept actresses disarmed the audience with their charming banter and touching humour.

After the emotional emptiness of the many pretentious plays this year (most of them during the Arts Fest), POSTCARDS FROM PERSEPHONE was a refreshing piece of local theatre that breathed much needed fresh air with its own brand of originality.